It’s time we focus attention on one of the most important health issues affected by our society’s way of eating: our planet’s. Let’s understand why our diets are a bigger threat to our planet than to our own health, and the possible solutions that will protect us and our future.
Our debates about diet for human health are apt to become moot very soon.
As we learn ever more from environmental experts, the impact of our prevailing diets on the planet is fast becoming the only thing that really matters. There will be no point in debating diet for human health on a planet no longer hospitable to human habitation. And we are blithely, and blindly, blundering in that very direction.
There has, indeed, long been a reasonably broad theme representing “the” optimal diet for human health, couched within a small portfolio of other lifestyle practices diverse authorities call by different names, but prioritize in common.
Fortunately, the imperatives of lifestyle for our own health promotion are highly confluent with the needs of the planet. Experts tell us, however, that the needs of the planet may be more urgent, and less accommodating. In fact, the planet’s many imminent perils and unchecked population growth may be narrowing down our dietary options rather rapidly.
This is directly analogous to human health threats.
When a person is still mostly healthy, there tend to be many ways to stay that way. The treatments for advanced disease are much more narrowly circumscribed. What happens to patients in ICUs is generally unpleasant, and highly protocolized. The planet is fast headed toward the ICU.
What the collective experts do agree on is that diet and lifestyle can, and therefore must, change at scale to help save the planet. In case you want in on it right away, two direct substitutions would make an excellent start: drink plain water instead of soda, and eat more beans and lentils in the place of all varieties of meat, but especially beef.
It may not be too long before a planet of both the starving and the obese, of parched fields and rising seas, of rising temperatures and dwindling aquifers, of dying birds and bats and bees…
Leaves us no choice at all.
As dire as it sounds, there are solutions that can change our course. There are, in fact, environmental factors and solutions behind sustainable, plant-based living that may be critical to both our health and our planet’s.
The most recent estimates from the United Nations show that greenhouse gas (GHG) production from the livestock industry contributes to 14.5% of the total emissions. That’s higher than the greenhouse gas discharge from cars and planes combined. Cattle alone represents ~65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.
Although it’s not entirely fair to vilify the meat and dairy producers, reports suggest the livestock industry has the potential to drastically reduce this number by as much as a third. While reducing meat (particularly beef) intake is the best way to positively influence emissions, there are other options as well.
These include technologies and practices that improve production efficiency at animal and herd levels – factors that can make a drastic impact on overall emissions, including:
1. Improving animal and herd efficiency by using better feeds and feeding techniques. This reduces methane (CH4) generated during digestion, as well as CH4 and nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure.
2. Improved breeding and animal health interventions to allow herd sizes to shrink – which means fewer, more productive animals.
3. Manure management that ensures recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy.
4. Better management of grazing lands.
There is indeed an argument about this underway in the scientific community. It involves some debate about whether eating less meat and dairy will have much of an impact on GHG levels. However, consensus and majority of evidence does point to the fact that our current consumption of animal products is unsustainable, both for the health of the planet and our own. Becoming aware of the impact of our food choices and making small changes (join the Meatless Mondays movement) can help.
So what can consumers and public health experts realistically do?
One of the key critical changes that we can make in our diets, as Dr. Katz has pointed out, is to substitute lentils and beans for beef. Drastically increasing fruit and vegetable may not be realistic, but adding more of them to the diet in addition to legumes and whole grains can only improve our health and benefit the environment.
From a health expert’s standpoint, more education is needed to inform the public about this critical issue. In particular, dietitians and nutrition professionals are uniquely positioned to make an impact. By translating current knowledge as healthy and balanced food inspiration, they are improving both the our health and our planet.
There are solutions. The good news is that what we eat has direct influence on the future of our species and our planet. We have the knowledge, the resources and the power to create change.
Now we must take action.
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David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM is the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and founder of the True Health Initiative. Recognized globally for expertise in nutrition, weight management and the prevention of chronic disease, Dr. Katz established the True Health Initiative, a non-profit organization focused on converting what we know as lifestyle as medicine into actionable knowledge that will add years to lives of individuals around the globe.
Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN is a Los Angeles-based private practice dietitian who shares her love of health and wellness through a unique global perspective. From world-class U.S. medical centers to rural villages in Africa, Mascha has dedicated herself to traveling the world. She spreads her love of healthy living through both her humanitarian work and private practice. Learn more about Mascha at Nomadista Nutrition.