Tips on how to eat more sustainably and stay healthy
How do you keep your family healthy and save the planet? Well, you don’t need to be a superhero for starters. But, there are some things to consider before you walk down the supermarket aisles.
Small changes in what we consume can lead to real environmental benefits. This means fewer toxic chemicals, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner waterways, and greater preservation of our oceans and its resources.
Eating ‘green’ can also mean eating fresher, healthier foods while reducing your grocery bill and supporting Australian farmers.
Here’s some ways you can eat more sustainably AND healthily.
What is sustainable food?
Did you know that global food production contributes approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions? And the livestock sector alone represents almost half (14.5%) of these emissions? Food production also uses 70% of freshwater.
So, eating sustainably is selecting food that is healthy and also good for the environment.
Choosing certified sustainable food when you're shopping or eating out is an easy way to support planet-friendly food production and sourcing.
Discovering how and where your food is produced is also a useful habit to adapt. And, deciding to buy locally grown meat, dairy and produce may also help meet your own sustainability goals.
We spoke to Jess Milford, Naturopath, about whether it is difficult to add sustainable food into our lifestyle. “If things are good for your body, they're generally good for the environment,” says Jess.
“At the end of the day, we are part of nature.” Jess suggests that “if we're eating healthily, being really conscious of plastics, chemicals and the amount of animal by-products we consume, then we're helping the planet.”
Consider how it’s packaged
If you are drooling over some individually packaged bliss balls at the local deli, think again. Individual packaging isn’t so great for the environment.
Instead, grab some ingredients on your way home and whip up a whole batch of bliss ball deliciousness. And by storing them in a large glass cookie jar, you’ve hit the trifecta. Zero packaging required.
Keep an eye on packaged produce and try to reduce your non-recyclable waste.
Do your research
Jump online and check out different brands. This reduces the confusion of making decisions when at the shops.
Just because the packaging includes the words ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’, doesn’t mean it meets the definition of a sustainable diet.
According to a group of international experts and endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy while optimizing natural and human resources.”
“If I know a brand or heard of one I want to have a look at, I find out more about the company. Then, I know if it’s aligned with my beliefs. Normally, if they’re into sustainability, they'll talk about it on their website,” says Jess.
Vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or paleo?
You’ve probably heard lots of contradictory noise about which type of diet is best for your health and the planet. You may have even tried a few over the years.
There’s loads of research that says a plant-based diet is more planet-friendly than a meat-based diet because it doesn’t include large food production chains. Not eating meat, fish and dairy cancel out a lot of greenhouse gas emissions and use of our water supply.
But, in 2019 the EAT-Lancet Commission assessed existing data and developed a scientific target around a ‘planetary health diet’. This is a flexible dietary pattern consisting of:
- vegetables and fruits
- whole grains, legumes and nuts
- unsaturated oils
- low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry
- no (or a low quantity of) red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables
The effects of eating meat on the environment
Choosing a sustainable plant-based diet is a positive way to help our planet. Cattle are significant greenhouse gas producers, which contributes to climate change.
Australia’s beef industry relies on fodder and clean water, so cattle production is costly to our environment. Native vegetation and wildlife habitat is sometimes cleared for agricultural purposes. And if the cattle eat too much grass in the paddock, it can cause erosion. This means the soil is then taken away by rain into our waterways.
So, how can we eat meat sustainably? Firstly, eat less meat. And when you do eat meat, source it locally. Choose meat that has been raised in the paddocks, not confined to a barn or cage. Plus, it’s not only better for the environment, it’s better for the animals too.
Chicken, seafood or beef?
So, is chicken more sustainable than beef? Chickens do have a smaller footprint than cattle. And they can be farmed free-range. But they still need grains to eat, water to drink and land to roam.
And what about eating sustainable seafood? Some marine conservation groups suggest that certain commercial fishing practices have an impact on our oceans.
The Goodfish Guide is Australia’s independent guide to help you choose sustainable fishmongers, restaurants, supermarkets and fish and chip shops.
Grow your own organic produce
Jess says, “If you have the time and space to grow your own fruit and vegetables, then do it.” She recommends it for a number of reasons. “It gives you organic produce right off the bat, as you don't have to use pesticides.”
You can eat what’s in season when you grow it yourself. And it’s a great way to introduce your kids to the garden.
“Studies have found people that have a connection with nature more regularly, have lower cortisol levels. So, their stress hormones are lower and they have better sleep,” says Jess, “Unfortunately we live in a really disconnected way from nature at the moment.”
Jess also advises that if you have contact with soil, you can pick up healthy bacteria – which can help strengthen your immune system (although, obviously, she’s not suggesting you ingest soil!).
Healthy diet, healthy planet
You’ll be happy to know you don’t have to do anything extremely life-changing to eat more sustainably. It just takes a few minor adjustments.
So, how can you easily incorporate healthy eating that’s good for the environment into your meal plan? Here are a few tips:
- introduce ‘meat-free Monday’ by cooking a yummy vegan pasta served with a leafy green salad
- head to the farmers market to pick up seasonal produce, local seafood and meats
- include one fair trade food item in your shopping basket each week
- reduce the amount of processed and packaged foods you place in your shopping basket
- set up a garden bed and get the kids involved in planting, nurturing and harvesting
- compost your scraps and coffee grounds
- drink lots of water and use fresh tea leaves instead of bags
Keeping healthy helps our environment. Have you ever considered your personal waste that’s being flushed and how it’s affecting the planet?
Water is precious
Protecting our waterways and their resources from synthetic products increases the likelihood of a healthy future.
Firstly, the biggest change you can make is to reduce your use of plastic. Instead, take recyclable shopping bags with you to the store, buy a keep-cup for your daily coffee and ditch the plastic cutlery.
Don’t buy single-use bottles of water, plastic wrap, and paper towels. Try packing your lunch in a reusable container or bag, and only turn on the dishwasher when it’s full.
Eating healthily and sustainability
Eating ‘green’ can keep you healthy and save our planet. But, you don’t have to make too many changes to your lifestyle. Being mindful of the choices you have empowers you to make a difference.
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Jessica Milroy is a Naturopath who combines evidence-based functional medicine with a range of complementary therapies and lifestyle supportive strategies to find and treat the root cause of an illness, empowering her clients to be well in the process.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021