The food we eat can impact our environment as well as our health.
Good nutrition is one of the keys to good health. But did you know that the choices we make about the food we eat can also impact our environment — and even the health of our neighbors around the globe?
The medical journal The Lancet has called climate change “the greatest global health threat facing the world in the 21st century.” And the related health impacts are many and varied. For example, climate change has been linked to increased risk for people with asthma, and it’s also having an impact on the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria.
A direct link exists between climate change and humans’ consumption of food. More specifically, about one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations, is linked to food. This involves several steps — growing, processing, transporting, distributing and preparing food — before it lands on your dinner plate.
Although the lion’s share of food-related greenhouse gases come from agriculture and land use, you can take some easy steps to improve your own nutrition while simultaneously reducing your impact on the environment.
Here are six sustainable eating tips to consider in 2024 to improve both your and the Earth’s health.
Tip No. 1: Consume less meat.
Meat production is a significant contributor to climate change, including deforestation to create land for grazing animals, as well as animal waste that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. While meats — chicken, beef, pork and the like — are a good source of protein, they are also high in saturated fats and cholesterol. The high content of saturated fat and cholesterol can lead to obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
To decrease your meat consumption, consider having Meatless Mondays, when you choose plant-forward meals that are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Tip No. 2: Choose sustainable seafood.
Ask your seafood supplier where their seafood is harvested. By asking this question, you’re armed with better information to make smarter choices to save our planet. When choosing wild-caught seafood, look for seafood harvested from fisheries using sustainable practices. If you opt for farm-raised seafood, ensure that your seafood suppliers harvest in smaller quantities, which enables the species to more easily repopulate.
A number of resources exist to help you make smart choices about seafood, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the Marine Stewardship Council, which provide sustainable seafood certifications. Check their websites to learn more.
Tip No. 3: Buy seasonal; buy local.
When you make the choice to eat seasonally and locally, you decrease the environmental impact of transporting foods long distances. This means buying fruits and vegetables that are grown nearby. Consuming fruits that are ripening on the plant instead of inside a truck or cargo ship will result in fresher food on your table. While eating locally and in-season inhibits some year-round access to foods we love, it does mean we’re making the choice to create a sustainable meal plan.
By buying foods from local businesses and farms, we’re also supporting our community, which in turn fosters growth in our local community and increases the health of our environment. Consider joining a local Community Supported Agriculture group (CSA), which gives farmers the financing up-front to care for their farm and provides a rich variety of both common and seldom found fruits and vegetables.
Tip No. 4: Create a plant-forward diet.
A plant-forward diet is a great way to decrease the portion size of meat and increase our intake of fruits and vegetables. Since fruits and vegetables are lower in calories than meat, they can help us maintain a healthy weight. Another benefit: fruits and vegetables add vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to our bodies, which are beneficial to boost our immune system and reduce our risk of cancer. Additionally, the fiber found in these foods can help maintain the health of our bowels.
Choosing more fruits and vegetables adds beneficial bacteria to our gut to keep our gastrointestinal system healthy. (See “Keeping Up with Gut Health” below.)
Tip No. 5: Reduce food waste.
Rethink your grocery list. Choose items you can use in several meals. For example, if you choose to roast a whole chicken, don’t let it spoil in the refrigerator. Instead, shred the chicken to make chicken salad for lunch one day and use other chicken chunks to make soup with broth. Consider mixing the extra chicken with pasta and vegetables from your pantry.
Tip No. 6: Make sustainable beverage choices.
First and foremost, make water your primary beverage of choice. Water has zero calories, no added sugar and will keep you hydrated throughout the day. Cases of soda and juice require shipping and thus use more fossil fuels.
To make your diet more sustainable, consider choosing water from your tap and invest in a filter and a reusable water bottle rather than relying on bottled water. If you don’t enjoy plain water, add seasonal and local herbs and sliced fruits to create a tasty beverage.
Keeping Up with Gut Health
The gut, technically known as the gastrointestinal tract, is bigger than your stomach. It actually encompasses your small intestines, large intestines and colon. It also contains hundreds of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Some of these microorganisms are good for the gut while others are bad.
Because the health of your gut affects your entire immune system, you should nurture your gut with healthy bacteria. Your gut health impacts your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Believe it or not, the gut also impacts your mental health and how well you sleep.
Here are three ways to improve the health of your gut and, hopefully, your life.
1. Balanced diet. An easy way to balance your diet is to choose foods of different colors from each of the five food groups: protein, vegetables, fruits, carbohydrates and dairy. Visit MyPlate.gov to learn more about ways to balance your plate.
2. Increase your fermented foods. You can add more fermented foods to your diet by picking a few consumable goods that happen to start with the letter K. For example, kefir is a type of fermented milk, kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made with fermented vegetables, and kombucha is a fermented black tea. All three can improve your gut health. Sorry to break the news, but KitKat bars are not fermented, so the K rule is not absolute.
3. Increase your prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that help the good bacteria in your gut flourish. These include apples, cabbage, chickpeas, oats, onions and whole grain foods. Probiotics are live bacteria that make the gut happy and healthy. These include kefir, miso, pickles, yogurt and sourdough bread. It’s important to note that you should consult your healthcare provider before adding prebiotic or probiotic supplements.
With balance on your plate and diversity in your foods, you will experience a happier, healthier gut and body!
This New Year, I encourage you to help improve the health of both your body and our planet. As you progress in this journey, don’t forget to take a walk through nature. You deserve to enjoy the beautiful surroundings that you’ve supported by making sustainable and healthy eating choices!
Brittany Knick, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC, is a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at ChristianaCare, where she’s responsible for providing nutrition education. As part of her sessions, Knick covers using healthy recipes, taking into account cooking skills and food security/access. She also evaluates blood glucose levels to develop individualized care plans for patients with diabetes using diabetes technology, including insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors.
Our Favorite Resources
- Berkshire Hathaway Holly Gross
- Cecil County Tourism
- Chester County Community Foundation
- Chester County Hospital, Penn Med
- Delaware Museum of Natural History
- Key Financial, Inc.
- King Construction
- Sage Life
- Sugarbridge Kitchen & Bath
- SV Dental
- Thorncroft Equestrian Center
- Tim Vaughan
- Welcome Neighbor
- West Chester BID
- Walter J. Cook