Want to do something good for the planet? Try eating healthy, study says

Want to do good for the planet? Try eating healthy

A new study finds that following a nationally recommended diet in high-income nations results in healthy outcomes for the environment.

Los Angeles Times reports:

It turns out that healthy eating isn’t just good for your body, it can also lessen your impact on the environment.

Scientists say that food production including growing crops, raising livestock, fishing and transporting all that food to our plates is responsible for 20% to 30% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, 33% of the ice-free land on our planet is being used to grow our food, researchers say.

But altering our diets could change that.

A new study published Monday in PNAS found that if citizens in 28 high-income nations like the United States, Germany and Japan actually followed the dietary recommendations of their respective governments, greenhouse gases related to the production of the food they eat would fall by 13% to 25%.

NPR reports:

Telling people what to eat is perilous, whether the advice is aimed at a friend or an entire country. Of course, people and governments do it anyway. Dozens of countries have come up with recommendations for the perfect, most health-promoting diet.

Those recommendations are aimed at improving people’s health. But Paul Behrens, a researcher at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, wanted to know whether this advice — if people actually followed it — might affect the environment. Producing foods, after all, has profoundly altered the planet, and those impacts can vary a lot, depending on which foods people demand.

Behrens just published his analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He looked at what would happen if people in 37 different countries followed the dietary recommendations of their own governments. In general, he says, those shifts would be good for the planet. Greenhouse gas emissions would fall, waterways would suffer less pollution from fertilizer, and less land would be required to feed people.

“We have the perfect tool to analyze this,” says Behrens. Scientists have assembled a massive database that allows them to calculate the emissions of greenhouse gases, the demand for land, or the fertilizer pollution caused by growing different kinds of food in different parts of the world. It can even distinguish, for instance, between the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from letting cattle graze on grass in Australia, versus feeding them corn in North American feedlots.

International Business Times reports:

The outlook for the poorer middle-income countries was in stark contrast, with negative impacts across all three environmental categories, estimated to be 12.4-17 percent, 24.5-31.9 percent, and 8.8–14.8 percent, respectively.

The difference between different income nations is based at least in part on specific dietary challenges faced by different countries. While the United States advises people to reduce calorie intake, India is trying to get its citizens to consume more calories, and is also advising higher meat consumption.

But despite the negative environmental impact by following the NRD of low-income and poor middle-income countries, the environment would still be benefitted overall if more people ate healthier. According to the paper, uniform adoption of NRDs across the countries they studied would lead to 0.19-0.53 gigatons fewer of carbon equivalent emissions, between 4.32 and 10.6 gigatons less of phosphate (the main culprit behind eutrophication) and between 1.5 and 2.8 million square kilometers (0.6-1.08 million square miles) lesser agricultural land.

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