Food & Cooking

Healthy Foods Are More Environmentally Sustainable

A new study reveals a clear link between healthy food and environmental sustainability.

Nov. 14, 2019
By Isabel Putinja

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A new study by researchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford and the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota shows that foods that are con­sid­ered to be healthy, such as whole-grain cere­als, fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes, nuts, and olive oil, also have the low­est envi­ron­men­tal impact.

This study shows that eat­ing health­ier also means eat­ing more sus­tain­ably.- David Tilman, Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota

The study, Mul­ti­ple health and envi­ron­men­tal impacts of foods, pub­lished in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences (PNAS) reveals a clear link between healthy food and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity.

Recent stud­ies have con­firmed that dietary choices can have an effect on the envi­ron­ment. This newest study points out that agri­cul­tural food pro­duc­tion emits approx­i­mately 30 per­cent of global green­house gases, uses up approx­i­mately 40 per­cent of the earth’s land, causes nutri­ent pol­lu­tion that affects ecosys­tems and water qual­ity, and uses approx­i­mately 70 per­cent of the earth’s fresh water sourced from rivers, reser­voirs, and ground­wa­ter.

As part of the study, the researchers exam­ined the impact of con­sum­ing an addi­tional serv­ing per day of fif­teen spe­cific foods on five health out­comes” in adults that are brought on by poor diets and account for nearly 40 per­cent of global mor­tal­ity, specif­i­cally: mor­tal­ity, type two dia­betes, stroke, coro­nary heart dis­ease, and col­orec­tal can­cer.

At the same time, the effects on five aspects of agri­cul­tur­ally dri­ven envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion” were stud­ied includ­ing green­house gas emis­sions, land use, water use, acid­i­fi­ca­tion and eutroph­i­ca­tion (the last two are forms of nutri­ent pol­lu­tion).


The foods included chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, pota­toes, processed red meat, refined grain cere­als, sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages, unprocessed red meat, veg­eta­bles, and whole-grain cere­als.

We now know pretty well that pre­dom­i­nantly plant-based diets are much health­ier and more sus­tain­able than meat-heavy diets,” said Marco Spring­mann of the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford, one of the researchers. But some­times there is still con­fu­sion among peo­ple about what foods to choose.”

By com­par­ing the five health and five envi­ron­men­tal impacts of each food, the researchers deter­mined that foods with the low­est envi­ron­men­tal impacts often have the largest health ben­e­fits. Foods such as whole-grain cere­als, fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish had the most pos­i­tive impact on health while also hav­ing the low­est envi­ron­men­tal impact – with the excep­tion of fish.

Con­versely, the foods with the largest envi­ron­men­tal impacts, such as unprocessed and processed red meat were also asso­ci­ated with the high­est risk of dis­ease. Min­i­mally processed, health-boost­ing plant foods and olive oil were found to have a low envi­ron­men­tal impact, but so did processed foods high in sugar that are harm­ful to health, such as sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages.

The foods mak­ing up our diets have a large impact on both our­selves and our envi­ron­ment,” said David Tilman of the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota. This study shows that eat­ing health­ier also means eat­ing more sus­tain­ably. Nor­mally, if a food prod­uct is good for one aspect of a per­son’s health, it’s bet­ter for other health out­comes, as well. The same holds for envi­ron­men­tal out­comes.”

The study con­cluded that a tran­si­tion towards diets made up of more healthy foods would improve not only gen­eral pub­lic health by dimin­ish­ing the risk of dis­ease, but also pro­mote envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity and facil­i­tate progress towards meet­ing tar­gets such as the UN’s Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals and the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment.

Con­tin­u­ing to eat the way we do threat­ens soci­eties, through chronic ill health and degra­da­tion of Earth’s cli­mate, ecosys­tems and water resources,” said the study’s lead researcher, Michael Clark of the Uni­ver­sity of Oxford. Choos­ing bet­ter, more sus­tain­able diets is one of the main ways peo­ple can improve their health and help pro­tect the envi­ron­ment.”

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