September 22, 2023

Lots of people try to make sustainable choices when they eat. Increasingly, that includes more plant-based menus, perhaps not entirely vegan or vegetarian, but primarily so. Achieving a healthy and sustainable food system is both a private and public matter, as all shifts in the food production landscape will require adaptations in our diets.

Honestly, it’s a challenge to convince people to change their eating habits toward more environmentally sustainable food consumption. Food preferences, availability, and eating habits are a central aspect of people’s lifestyles and their socio-cultural environment. Yet, because our food consumption is usually directed at attaining goals, our perspectives can be refined by gaining tools to inform us about issues in the food and health space.

One of the best approaches to learning more about the sustainable choices available to us is to look at recent research in the field. Here are summaries of 3 intriguing studies that can offer us direction and inspiration about how our diets are part of a larger interrelated ecosystem.

What are the Health Habits that Contribute to Life Expectancy?

Last year, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy with a huge, long term dataset from which to draw. Diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption were areas of interest.

Here is how they defined and measured healthy habits.

1. Healthy diet, which was calculated and rated based on the reported intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.

2. Healthy physical activity level, which was measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity daily.

3. Healthy body weight, defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), which is between 18.5 and 24.9.

4. Smoking, no, there is no healthy amount of smoking. “Healthy” here meant never having smoked.

5. Moderate alcohol intake, which was measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

How did you do?

Here’s an interesting tidbit that came out of the study: Stress that’s good for longevity can be caused by nutrition. In the best of times, our ancestors were able to locate protein-rich red meat for peak energy and performance. But lots of hunting expeditions failed, and, when that happened, people turned to the hardy plants around them for sustenance.

Today, our bodies still infer a state of scarcity if we consume lots of vegetables, switching on the longevity genes. Indeed, such a diet is associated with longer lives, according to the Harvard study above. To maximize what longevity experts call “healthspan,” at least 50% of protein should come from vegetable sources, Valter Longo, a biochemist who runs the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, told the Washington Post.

Small Targeted Dietary Changes, Big Gains for Health & the Environment

To identify environmentally sustainable choices in foods that promote health, a group of researchers out of the University of Michigan combined nutritional health-based and 18 environmental indicators to evaluate, classify, and prioritize individual foods. They developed the Health Nutritional Index to quantify marginal health effects in minutes of healthy life gained or lost of 5,853 foods in the US diet, ranging from 74 minutes lost to 80 minutes gained per serving.

Environmental impacts showed large variations and were found to be correlated with global warming, except those related to water use. Their analysis also indicated that substituting only 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meat for fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and selected seafood could offer substantial health improvements of 48 minutes gained per person per day and a 33% reduction in dietary carbon footprint.

Previous studies investigating healthy or sustainable diets had often reduced their findings to a discussion of plant-based versus animal-based foods, with the latter stigmatized as the least nutritious and sustainable.

Here are some interesting findings from their report, which was released in August, 2021.

  • Global warming impacts of animal-based foods vary by more than one order of magnitude per 100 kcal and serving, respectively, with beef dishes generating the highest and cheese and poultry dishes the lowest estimate.
  • Nutritional differences among animal-based foods are even more substantial, with high health damages associated with foods high in processed meat (~6–37 min lost per serving) and considerable health benefits from omega-3 fatty acids from seafood (~5–28 min gained per serving depending on the species).
  • Although these research found that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods that they felt should be acknowledged before such generalized inferences are warranted. For example, nuts, seeds, and fruits require water usage per serving of the same order of magnitude as animal-based dishes.
  • Plant-based foods can have diverse environmental performances, often explained by differences in production systems and farming methods. For consumptive water use and freshwater ecotoxicity, the environmental impacts of certain plant-based foods are comparable and sometimes exceed the impacts of animal-based foods, with differences becoming more apparent when foods are compared on a caloric basis.
  • Heated greenhouse-grown crops generate considerably greater global warming impacts and PM2.5 impacts than field-cultivated vegetables.

What can increase lifespans, then? Personalized diet solutions where the consumer identifies trade-offs and substitutions they are willing to make (for example, less processed meat and more seafood) and assesses the corresponding benefits/damages for human health and the environment. The researchers noted that such a personalized approach has a better chance of leading to sustained behavior change, as the consumer can factor in additional key variables that influence food choices, such as taste preferences, family considerations or affordability.

If Not Annual Wheat, then What? Sustainable Choices beyond the Norm

Most commercial crops are annual. They provide only one harvest and must be replanted every year. Growing these foods on an industrial scale usually takes huge amounts of water, fertilizer, and energy, making agriculture a major source of carbon and other pollutants. Scientists say this style of farming has imperiled Earth’s soils, destroyed vital habitats, and contributed to the dangerous warming of our world.

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that when cultivated without conservation practices, soil is currently eroding up to 100 times quicker than its forming. The FAO has stated that 28% of the world’s agricultural land grows crops that are wasted. In the process, 250 km of water goes to waste. The carbon footprint of food produced but not eaten is estimated at 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. With 33% of the world’s soil degraded, shouldn’t we stop food waste and start giving the soil something back? I’m a huge proponent of composting and constantly advocate with my city to add composting stations to large recycling areas.

But the way crops are grown may add an entirely new dimension to improving soil. Take, for example, Kernza®, which is the trademark name for the grain of an intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) being developed at The Land Institute. Today, this ecologically beneficial perennial grain has already made its way into the commercial supply chain in small niche markets.

Proponents say it can mimic the way a natural ecosystem works — potentially transforming farming from a cause of environmental degradation into a solution to the planet’s biggest crises. Why? What’s different about Kernza®?

  • It’s a perennial.
  • A single seed will grow into a plant that provides grain year after year after year.
  • It forms deep roots that store carbon in the soil and prevent erosion.
  • It can be planted alongside other crops to reduce the need for fertilizer and provide habitat for wildlife.
  • The yield potential of Kernza® is rapidly increasing, and after harvest, remaining leaves and stems can be grazed by cattle.
  • In good conditions, the long, slender Kernza® seed heads can contain more seeds than an annual wheat head.
  • With each breeding cycle, researchers work to increase seed size.
  • New varieties of Kernza® grain can enable farmers to grow it profitably at scale and bring its environmental benefits to modern farms and diets.

If you want to see what it’s like to bake with this perennial grain, check out this Washington Post article.

Final Thoughts about Sustainable Choices for Health & the Planet

The Union of Concerned Scientists finds that federal funding for “sustainable nutrition science” — a field of research and education at the intersection of food production, climate and environment, and nutrition — is abysmally low, amounting to less than 25 cents out of every thousand dollars in federal research funding.

The US reconciliation plan devotes $7.6 billion to agricultural research, more than half of which is focused on climate change. Agriculture and climate have tremendous impacts on human health. In a causal chain, climate change is directly linked to food production, which is directly linked to health and nutrition — and all of these have haunting shadows of colonialist racial and economic injustice. Every time we talk about sustainable choices for health and the planet, we must take into account the social inequities that present barriers to a full and healthy US citizenry.

Let’s continue to advocate about how the confluence agriculture, climate, and health affect us today and the generations that will follow us.


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