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Many Health and Eco Impacts of Food Choices

Sharon Palmer

Research continues to support the concept that what we put in our shopping carts each week can make a big impact, both on our personal health as well as the health of the planet. Unfortunately, people around the world are shifting those eating patterns in a negative way.

In fact, food choices are shifting globally in ways that are negatively affecting both human health and the environment. A November 2019 study published in PNAS looked at how consuming an additional serving per day of each of 15 foods was associated with five health outcomes in adults, and five aspects of agriculturally driven environmental degradation.

Researchers found that while there is substantial variation in the health outcomes of different foods, foods associated with a larger reduction in disease risk for one health outcome are often associated with larger reductions in disease risk for other health outcomes. Likewise, foods with lower impacts on one metric of environmental harm tend to have lower impacts on others.

The foods associated with improved health (whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish), all except fish had among the lowest environmental impacts, and fish had markedly lower impacts than red meats and processed meats. Foods associated with the largest negative environmental impacts—unprocessed and processed red meat—were consistently associated with the largest increases in disease risk.

Thus, dietary transitions toward greater consumption of healthier foods would generally improve environmental sustainability, although processed foods high in sugars harm health and can have relatively low environmental impacts. These findings could help consumers, policy makers, and food companies to better understand the multiple health and environmental implications of food choices.

The message of the story? What is good for your own health, is also good for the planet. Eat more whole, minimally processed plant foods.

Clark MA, Springmann M, Hill J, Tilman D. Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods. PNAS. 2019;116(46):23357-23362.

To learn how to eat a more plant-based, sustainable diet, check out some of my favorite tips:

5 Tips for Plant-Powering Your Eating Style
Top 5 Tips for Greening Your Plate
Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Eating

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