Healthy eating is also healthy for the planet. [Photo: Bigstock]

Eat healthy…and help fight climate change

10 March, 2017

You are what you eat, as the saying goes, and while good dietary choices boost your own health, they also could improve the health care system and even benefit the planet.

Healthier people mean not only less disease but also reduced greenhouse gas emissions from health care.

As it turns out, some relatively small diet tweaks could add up to significant inroads in addressing climate change – at least according to the finding of a new study US study from the University of California at Santa Barbara researchers, who analysed the potential effects of healthier model diets for the United States.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has done this,” said study director David Cleveland, a research professor in UCSB’s environmental studies program and geography department. “People have looked at what effect diets have both on climate and on health, but they’ve never examined the potential to mitigate climate change through the food system and the health care system together.”

The food system contributes about 30% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest proportion coming from animal-based food. In addition, the poor quality of the standard US diet – including high levels of red and processed meat and low levels of fruits and vegetables – is a major factor in a number of preventable diseases. The US spends $3 trillion on health care every year – 18% of the gross domestic product – much of it allocated to diseases associated with poor diets.

What you need to know

» What we eat and how we farm has a profound effect on climate – and health.

» In a new study US researchers created a model healthy  diet which was high in fruits and vegetables and in which red and processed meats were reduced and protein from beans and pulses was eaten instead.

» Their calculations showed that in addition to reducing the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes by 20-40% the diet also reduced greenhouse gas emissions generated by healthcare dropped by 222 kilograms per person per year.

Linking it all together

The researchers linked together data from several sources to inform their work. This included data from published meta-analyses that examined the effect of foods on diseases, data on the effects of the diets on greenhouse gas emissions for the food system. This allowed them to estimate the change in risk of diabetes, colorectal cancer and coronary heart disease due to the healthier diets and the subsequent effect on both health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

They then created a model for a healthier diet, by altering the standard 2,000-calorie-a-day US diet, changing the sources of about half of those calories. The different model diets progressively reduced the amount of red and processed meats, with the most stringent diet eliminating them completely.

Fruit and vegetable intake was doubled, and peas and beans increased to replace the meat protein removed. Refined grains were partially replaced with whole grains. Added sugar, a known health risk, was not reduced. Neither was dairy, eggs, fish or non-red meat.

“This means our estimates are probably very conservative, both in terms of health and climate change implications,” Cleveland said. “Just changing half of the diet and including only some of the diseases associated with diets, we found a huge effect.

“Food has a tremendous impact on the environment,” he added. “That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well on our health and our health care costs.”

Better health for people and planet

That is exactly what the scientists found. The adoption of healthier model diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes by 20-40%. Health care costs went down by $77 billion to $93 billion annually and direct greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 222 kg to 826 kg per person per year.

“In the third diet – which contained no red or processed meats – there was a savings of $95 billion out of the total annual cost of $230 billion for those three diseases,” Cleveland explained. “That’s not huge compared to the $3 trillion total in health care costs, but it’s a start. Results like these can also help motivate individual and policy changes.”

In terms of climate policy, the healthier diets could contribute up to 23% of the US Climate Action Plan goal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, Cleveland said. Further, the diets could generate up to 134% of California’s goal of reaching 1990 emission levels by 2020.

According to Cleveland, the findings add weight to the conclusion of several other recent studies: Diet change must be part of successful climate change mitigation policies, and climate change mitigation must be included in policies to improve the food system.