Increasing adaptation of healthier diets could reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and food production, according to research from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University.
Researchers have linked the health impacts of foods to their overall environmental impact, with the research report concluding that foods with positive health outcomes have among the lowest environmental impacts, while other foods such as red meat can be harmful to both.
The report, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), explored how consuming 15 different food groups is, on average, associated with five different health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation.
“The foods making up our diets have a large impact on both ourselves and our environment. 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,” said David Tilman, professor of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.
Results from the study indicate that almost all foods associated with improved health outcomes (eg, wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil) have the lowest environmental impacts, while foods with the largest increases in disease risks — primarily processed and unprocessed red meat such as pork, beef, mutton and goat — are associated with the largest negative environmental impacts.
Image credit: Clark et al, PNAS, 2019.
Two notable exceptions include fish (a generally healthier food with moderate environmental impacts) and sugar-sweetened beverages, which can pose a health risk but have a low environmental impact. Researchers concluded that consuming healthier foods would also improve environmental sustainability.
The study highlights recent recommendations from the United Nations and others about the environmental impacts of human diets. An August report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended individuals eat more plant-based foods as a way to adapt to and limit worsening climate change.
The study, funded by the University of Minnesota Grand Challenges Research Initiative, shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can improve health and the environment. The study also received financial support from the Wellcome Trust, Balzan Award Prize, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
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