You may have heard the rumors that certain ways of eating can have a smaller environmental “foodprint”—be healthier for our bodies and the planet. Yet what if eating healthier could even make the healthcare industry itself healthier and greener?
A new study led by U.C. Santa Barbara researchers analyzed data on the potential effects of healthier diets for the United States and found just that. The results appear in the journal Climatic Change and find that a healthy diet can not only have an enormous impact on disease prevalence and greenhouse gas emissions related to food production, it could also lower costs and emissions that spring directly from the health care system.
To put their research findings in perspective, I emailed questions to David Cleveland, the study director and a research professor in UCSB’s environmental studies program and geography department, about their study, “A healthier U.S. diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and healthcare systems.”
You analyzed the effects of healthier diets and health on the environment. What did you find?
The adoption of healthier model diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and Type 2 diabetes by 20 percent to 40 percent. Health care costs went down by $77 billion…for those three diseases. And greenhouse gas emissions for the three diets dropped by 222 kilograms to 826 kilograms per person per year.
In terms of climate policy, the healthier diets could contribute up to 23 percent of the U.S. Climate Action Plan goal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Further, the diets could generate up to 134 percent of California’s goal of reaching 1990 emission levels by 2020.
What are the small diet changes we can make that make the most difference?
The smallest diet change that can make the biggest difference, both in terms of reducing our climate impact and improving our health, is substituting animal products, especially red meat and dairy, with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Another change that could make big improvements in health is reducing added sugar intake; this wouldn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the food system much, but would have a relatively large effect reducing the emissions by reducing type 2 diabetes.
Can you share any examples of communities or governments connecting the health of humans and the environment though food choice?
The high correlation possible between foods that are good for our health and foods that are good for the climate and the environment in general is slowly beginning to find its way into official dietary recommendations. A survey of dietary guidelines by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) in the UK found four nations that have included environmental sustainability in their guidelines. One of these (Sweden) mentioned climate change mitigation as a reason.
In the US, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommended making this connection in the 2015-20 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), but it was rejected by the federal government, most likely because of the pressure from the food industry (especially the meat industry).
Public health and nutrition organizations are making this connection, often referring to it as environmental nutrition. And increasingly, communities that have borne the brunt of the negative health and environmental effects of climate change and poor diets [especially communities of color] are also making this connection.
It has been exciting to see other countries linking food and sustainability in their dietary policy. In general, though, why do you think that food is left off of the agenda of climate change discussions?
One reason is that we have the habit of thinking in separated compartments, which isn’t effective for dealing with the complex interrelated problems we face, such as climate change and health. The result is that policies to address the food, climate, and health crises are often siloed and separated from each other. For example the University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative would be more effective if it included a major focus on climate change mitigation via the food system; the UC’s Global Food Initiative would be more effective if it included a major focus on the relationships among food, climate, and health.
Even when the importance of diet change for dealing with climate change is acknowledged, there is often a reluctance to engage with it because food choices are often very personal, as well as infused with cultural meaning. But both research and action projects are beginning to show that when people understand the basic relationship among diet, climate, health and equity, many are ready to change their diets.