Healthy and Sustainable

August 28, 2012 in Food Economics, General, Health, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

On August 21, 2012 I stumbled upon an article published in the Los Angeles Times titled: A ‘sustainable’ diet: Must it all be cereal and cabbage? Rosie Mestel, who wrote the LA Times article was referring to a study done in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen – a study essentially looking at whether people could still get all their nutrient needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What’s really nice for us is that The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published the study and a commentary in their entirety, available for free. There’s a lot of food for thought in both the LA Times article and the study; so today I’d like to share some of the thoughts that I had when I read them.

In these blog posts, we often refer to other uses of the term “sustainable”.  Besides maintaining the planet’s health in a way that doesn’t consume non-renewable resources and does not degrade the environment, a sustainable diet is the opposite of a crash, or short term diet.  It is something that a person can sustain year after year as a permanent life-style change. It is also a diet that will sustain your personal health. Actually, to help the planet, we accomplish all three forms of sustainability when we get off the yo-yo diet cycle and permanently reduce the foods that most damage both the planet and ourselves.

To begin with, I’d like to point out that we will be getting more and more exposure to studies that focus on the relationship of what we eat, whether it can be healthy or not, and how it effects the environment. I like Mestel’s second paragraph, talking about how easily the term “sustainable” is bantered about, and the issues that must be considered.

The Aberdeen study first aimed for 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs); and they did it. They did it, unfortunately using only seven foods: whole-grain breakfast cereal (fortified with vitamins); pasta; peas; fried onions; Brassica (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower – we usually call them cruciferous vegetables in the U.S.); sesame seeds and confectionery (some chips and candy). The problem with their first try (90% reduction) was that the amounts were “large and unrealistic” and lots of breakfast cereal with no milk. We can learn one thing by looking at their first try; that is check out the foods that they used – consider including these foods in your diet (maybe not too much candy and chips).

The next try, reduced GHGEs by 36% and contained some meat and two fish meals a week. Before you start thinking that people can’t afford to eat this way, the researchers included cost in their analysis. The cost was about the same as what people presently spend on groceries. If the cost for eating this way increased cost, it wouldn’t be much said the researchers.

Really the bottom line is the conclusion that the authors of the study wrote: “A sustainable diet that meets dietary requirements for health with lower GHGEs can be achieved without eliminating meat or dairy products or increasing the cost to the consumer.” This is a very important conclusion. It means that we CAN do something toward protecting our environment. The super bonus is that moving toward protecting our environment also can help resolve another major problem – obesity. The way we presently eat (as a nation) provides too much saturated fat; too much added sugar, too much sodium, and not enough fiber.

There were options available to the researchers that were not taken; for example, they did not use quorn (made from fungus) or soy foods. The researchers tried to use foods that were broadly acceptable, but in the future, some of these foods may help move even further toward a lowered GHGEs rate. When it becomes more visibly available, I need to think of quorn as a relative of mushrooms, which I frequently truly enjoy.

An interesting related study done in 2000 compared vegetarian diets and non-vegetarian diets found that the non-vegetarian diets used 2.9 times more water; 2.5 times more primary energy; 13 times more fertilizer; and 1.4 times more pesticides. Vic and I are not vegans or vegetarians, but being flexitarians, do eat lots of vegetables and some meals without animal protein. My point is that we may not all be ready to jump all the way to vegans or to the 90% GHGEs reduction menu, but we may easily be able to take some initial steps toward reducing the share of GHGEs that out diet contributes to the atmosphere, by replacing some meat with vegetables and beans.

If you want to really appreciate what went into this study and see the differences in the various foods; you will, like me, enjoy the nicely done tables of the study.

What did I learn from this study?

  • The study made me feel good, because we at Doctor Grandma’s are working to direct you in a path that will achieve both the goals of good health and reduce GHGEs at the same time. If you’ve been reading Dr. Grandma’s for a long time, you’ll recognize that the Mediterranean-style of eating that we so frequently write about, encourages more vegetables and less meat.
  • Table one of the study provides a very concise way of illustrating to the public the differences in GHGEs for various food groups). We, at Doctor Grandma’s have been encouraging using meat sparingly for a long time – especially red meat. Beef, Lamb, Pork, Turkey, Fish and Cheese are the highest food group producing the most GHGEs. Interestingly, if these foods were consumed in smaller portions and less frequently, it, could potentially lead to weight loss. The reason is clear, with the exception of fish; all of these foods provide lots of fat and calories.
  •  In order to provide enough volume to make available enough nutrients and to fill people up, the researchers used vegetables and beans to decrease the amount of meat in the menu.
  • Figure 1 of the study, illustrates how the researchers manipulated the normal diet to attain a reduction in GHGEs. In essence, they increased fruit, vegetable, cereal, potato, and rice; slightly reduced dairy and eggs; significantly reduced fat, sugar, and meat; slightly increased fish; and more than doubled use of beans, lentils and peas.
  • Notice that the sample menus for the healthy and sustainable diets did not include meat at breakfast and lunch (one sample had shrimp for lunch). Maybe that’s a good place to start for those who want to move toward sustainable eating habits. Also, when meat, chicken and fish were served it was about 3 ounces and mixed with other foods to make an acceptable serving size. Consider making casseroles, stir fries and other mixed dishes to move away from large meat servings.

If you love our beautiful earth and want to live a long life to enjoy it, the sustainable diet study and LA Times article, along with their published comments, may be of interest and assistance to you. How fortunate it is that the personal choice to adopt as a lifestyle change a diet that sustains our body and does not go overboard toward excess weight, a diet that we can personally sustain year after year, is also a diet that is much more sustainable for the environment of our lovely blue and green planet.