March is nutrition month in Canada and this year the theme is Ingredients for a Healthier Tomorrow. One of the big ingredients, sustainable eating, is no secret though. Sustainable eating impacts not just your current health, but more importantly, your future health as well as the planet’s.
It feels like it should go without saying that human health is so closely linked with the Earth’s health. Yet many people pay little or no attention to it as they go about their daily lives.
Environmental concerns are not just something for hippie folks to think about … as we’ve experienced loud-and-clear over the past couple of years’ worth of natural disasters. Climate change is real and affects everyone.
Our food system has a major impact on the health of Earth’s ecosystems and has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate changes and the release of nitrogen into waterways. Unfortunately the future of these systems is now uncertain because of the damage already done.
Research also shows that 20-30% of total global direct carbon emissions are from food and agriculture.
With a continually growing human population, the food system is certainly something to be concerned with.
Choosing BETTER for sustainable eating and lifelong health
Obviously this discussion is complicated and needs many different players at the table. And obviously we can’t answer or fix everything in a single blog article.
But I’d like to suggest that we take the perspective of choosing ‘better’. Because any step forward we take from where we are now, even if it’s small, is better than staying here, doing the same things that are part of the problem.
With the aim of simply doing better than we are right now, it gives us permission to look proactively at how and where we can tweak our eating. Whether we’re talking about sustainability or personal healthful changes, baby steps can be the most effective way to go about it for lifelong health!
I’m hoping that by the end of this discussion you’ll have at least a few ideas about sustainable eating that you can see fitting well into your life, as one of the big ingredients for your healthier tomorrow.
What is sustainable eating?
I’d like to start off by touching on what sustainability is. It’s a big word and I find it’s used so often that it can feel quite vague.
On a personal level you may have thought before about how you want to find a way of eating that’s sustainable.
Basically you’re saying you want to find a way to eat that you can stick with and that’ll last well into the future.
In a nutshell, that’s what we’re talking about here … just on a much, much (much) larger scale. We’re talking about how to feed the whole world in way that the earth can support and that also supports people.
Sustainable eating patterns are:
- Healthy and meet people’s nutrition needs
- Good for the environment
- Culturally acceptable
- Affordable and easy to access
- An effective way to reduce food waste
- Protective of biodiversity and ecosystems
- Produced in a way that is fair and equitable to workers in the food system
As you can see, there’s a whole lot going on here at once! But just like any other system, it’s only as strong as its individual parts.
Are healthy diets sustainable?
At this point you many be thinking about many of the ‘healthy eating’ messages you’ve heard before and wondering, are they sustainable choices?
In honesty, when it comes to health there can be conflicts between healthy eating recommendations and environmental impact. For example, the recommendation to eat more fish is given alongside the fact global fish stocks are dwindling.
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to this question.
While healthy dietary patterns can be more sustainable, doesn’t mean that a healthy diet is a more sustainable diet.
Thinking of different eating patterns known to help health, the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, Vegetarian or Vegan diets can all be sustainable.
But when these eating patterns frequently use rice, low fat dairy, some red meats and imported products like avocado, coconut and almonds, they might not necessarily be more sustainable.
On the other hand, a sustainable diet may not be the most healthy either. Take for example someone who is choosing to eat less meat in order to be more sustainable. They could either chooses fries and a pop at the restaurant or swap their red meat for a plant-based option. Clearly these would have very different health outcomes if someone made the same choice over and over again.
Research has shown that national dietary recommendations in high income nations do fit into a sustainable eating pattern though. Compared to average diets, following dietary guidelines such as Canada’s Food Guide can lead to lower
- greenhouse gas emissions (by about 13-25%)
- eutrophication aka nitrogen and phosphorus release into waterways (by about 10-21%)
- land use (by about 6-18%)
On top of being more sustainable than the average dietary pattern, a sustainable (and healthful) way of eating doesn’t have to cost more. With the anticipated continued rising cost of meat products, eating more plant-based foods may even be easier on the wallet.
If you’re ready to learn lifelong, sustainable ways of eating for your health, I invite you to learn more about the program I’ve created called Nourish your Health.
This is a program to help people who don’t want to have a heart attack or get diabetes, to start using real-life habits so they can shift their eating to get better lab results, take less medication and lost some of that extra weight without feeling restricted, tied to a tracking app or disappointed with themselves that their willpower just can’t seem to last more than a few months.
5 small steps toward sustainable eating and lifelong health
Let’s move into some specific ways sustainable eating can be used for personal and planetary lifelong health.
Get more comfortable in the kitchen
Food skills are something that unfortunately have been lost for many people. With fast food and take-out so readily available, there isn’t as much incentive for people to value cooking or appreciate how preparing food can benefit our lifelong physical, mental and financial health.
By increasing your food skills, you can choose which environmentally sustainable habits will fit into your routines. You can also increase your self-sufficiency and make your eating patterns sustainable for your own health priorities … meaning you’ll be more likely to stick with your plan.
If you are someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the kitchen though, know that you’re not alone.
Many community centers offer cooking classes, sometimes for a specific health condition like diabetes or heart health. You can also explore cuisine-specific cooking classes, online cooking lessons or try learning with a friend.
Eat more plants
Increasing plant-based food choices is something we hear over and over again. The benefits are numerous, for lifelong personal health as well as planetary health.
When it comes to the environment, plant-producing farms contribute lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, use less water and need less land compared to animal-producing farms.
Aside from fruits and veggies, this includes plant-based milks, beans, lentils and legumes as well as soy and soy products like tofu.
And don’t worry, eating more plants doesn’t mean you now have to call yourself a vegetarian or even stop eating meat completely. But it can help balance out your plate, give you more fibre, fill you up and balance blood sugar levels as well.
Eat less red meat
A number of recommendations from leading organizations suggest to eat less red meat, for both health and environmental reasons.
Building on what we just talked about above, research shows that swapping saturated fats (such as from animal products) for unsaturated fats (such as from plant-based foods) can help lower risks of heart diseases.
When it comes to sustainability, red meat itself isn’t the biggest problem though; it’s more about the amounts we’re eating. So completely avoiding red meat isn’t the message, unless you want to – it’s not ‘all-or-nothing’.
Animal production contributes to deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and the release of nitrogen and other nutrients into groundwater through waste products (which then leads to dense plant growth in waterways and the death of marine life).
Another important issue with animal production is the amount of water needed to support it. Agriculture is the largest human use of water and animal production consistently has the highest use of water, with the exception of coffee. This is based on water-use estimates, though just as important (but not measured) is the impact of pollution on water supplies.
With the continued rising costs of meat also, more and more people are adopting a flexitarian way of eating, where plant-based choices take a larger role, but meat is still eaten.
Choose seasonal field grown produce
Choosing in-season produce means that your local climate can support it’s growth naturally.
Picture the produce section of your grocery store … if you’re old enough to remember a time when strawberries weren’t available in January, you can recognize that the only thing that changes about our produce nowadays is where it has been shipped from to get into our grocery store.
In order to get plump, juicy, tasty strawberries into our stores in the middle of winter, they are either being shipped great distances or grown in heated greenhouses through cold weather. Both of these practices add to greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the greenhouse is being heated with fossil-fuel-based energies.
In this case, buying local might be the answer … but it might also not be.
Locally grown food plays an important role in the overall food system, including preserving local skills, having control over local food systems (food sovereignty) and having food available in the case of emergencies or lack of availability from other parts of the world (food resilience).
But if a local producer doesn’t yet have the technology or skill to use sustainable practices such as crop rotation or proper waste management techniques, for example, then local may not be the most sustainable choice compared to a larger-scale producer using optimal practices.
The best way to start with this is to learn about the seasonal foods in your specific area and connect with them through the year. In BC, check out the BC Farmer’s Market website to learn more about the seasons in different parts of BC.
Another way to rely more on seasonal foods is to grow your own. If this feels daunting to you, make sure to start small! Start with one container and plant one type of food to try it out.
Reduce food and food-related waste
And lastly for the big ways we can make a difference, let’s talk a bit about about food waste.
Before I get into this I want to point out that this message often comes with a lot of shame and guilt so I want to set that aside right off the start.
Unfortunately the reality about food waste is that there are many points in the food chain where waste happens – like with inputs such as water or during processing or after prep like in a restaurant or food packaging facility.
But it’s been estimated that in middle to higher income countries, 1/3 of food is wasted with ½ of that being at the household level … so there is certainly room for most of us to work on making less waste. (Here you might be picturing your vegetable crisper full of veggies turning brown, wilted and mushy!)
Preventing food waste is important for many reasons:
- reduces food sitting in landfills and creating greenhouse gas emissions
- prevents the waste of all those inputs that went into production of food (from field to distribution)
- lowers your food costs which is important to sustainable eating patterns, especially in the context of rising food costs (with no end in near sight)
The best way to start making a change here is to learn from your trends and address when and where you’re wasting food, in a proactive way. For example, if restaurant eating means too large of portions, package up a portion before eating to take home, bring your own container and a cooler bag for leftovers, buy smaller meal or plan to share with a friend.
Other areas where you could start reducing the amount of food waste (and don’t forget food-related waste products):
- Use food storage containers, cloth napkins, beeswax food wraps, reusable cutlery and wash / reuse plastic food bags when this can be done in a food-safe way
- Use leftovers before they get tossed – helps to reduce household level food waste as well as packaging and disposables (because you’ll get an extra meal out of it instead of choosing take-out)
- Meal plan (this is a big one!) – helps to prevent buying too much food o forgetting about leftovers. This can be a helpful way to plan around seasonal foods when possible or at least choose the out-of-season stuff less often. Meal planning ahead of time also gives you a chance to see what you have available already in your home before going to the store. Some people call this shopping at home first and this also helps lower waste!
More tips for tips for sustainable eating and lifelong health
Buy eco-certified foods, these are foods that have been sustainably produced such as: MSC for marine products, free-range or fair-trade
Compost helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for trimmings and inedible portions of fruits & veggies, as well as othercompostable products. The bonus is that you can then use the nutrient-rich compost material as a soil booster for your new gardening hobby 😉
Drink tap water: bottled water produces 300 times more greenhouse gas emissions than tap water, mostly due to packaging and transport
Keep learning about sustainable eating
At the end of the day, it’s important to keep learning. Learn more about the food systems in your area, about your local farmers and their practices. Think about the lifecycle of the foods you buy – where/how were they grown, processed/packaged? What was the distance they travelled to get to you and what was the method of transportation, storage and preservation?
Learn also about yourself and your habits. Once you take a moment to look at your own habits, it becomes clear what ONE step you can start with and how you can choose better, for you.
What’s the one (better) thing you can start with as you move toward more sustainable eating and lifelong health?
I’d love to hear if any of these ideas inspired you to make changes in your own life. Send me a message with how you’re planning to use sustainable eating for your lifelong health journey.
Ready to learn more on how you can eat well for your health and actually make it stick?
In the Nourish your Health Program, I walk people through steps that are sustainable, one at a time, toward a new way of using food in their life – one that they can see themselves using for years to come, with the reassurance that they can do enough for their health.
Learn more about how this month-to-month program can help you
- Reframe your health and weight
- Reconnect with yourself
- Realign and Refine your approach
- Rewrite your future
If you want to talk it out to see if this is a good fit for your health priorities, I’m happy to chat – check out my calendar for your free Q&A Introduction call or send me a message to find a time that works for your schedule.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.