environment food health

A planet friendly diet is also a healthy diet

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how our diet can have a dramatic impact on our carbon footprints. A vegan diet has a little as a quarter of the ecological impact of a ‘normal’ Western diet. Reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat is one of the simplest and most immediate things that we can do for the climate.

What I didn’t include in that post is the health angle. As it turns out, the ecological damage of various foods tracks very closely to how healthy they are. The healthier it is for human bodies, the healthier it tends to be for the environment as well.

This graph is from a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It plots 15 different food categories for health outcomes and environmental harm. ‘SSBs’ are sugar sweetened beverages.

This is unequivocably good news. If we eat healthier food, we’ll improve the environment. If we want to improve the environment, we should eat healthier food.

For the bad news, you’ll have to imagine a third axis to this graph, plotting advertising spend. How many ads have you see for vegetables? (They do exist. Here’s one I saw at the cinema last year.) How many more adverts have you seen for processed red meat – most commonly in the form of burgers?

Now ask yourself which one would be easier to get hold of right now. I’m lucky enough to have a local Pakistani grocer about 30 seconds walk from my house, and the vegetables still don’t win. To get to them, I have to walk past the burger and pizza takeaway. In many parts of the world, it’s easier to find unhealthy and environmentally harmful food.

Our food system is a product of our economy, which is geared towards higher profits. That means more processed, more energy-dense foods, whether or not they are good for us. Both the planet and our health are victims of this economy. In such a context, enjoying your greens is a revolutionary act. Eat them to defeat consumer capitalism.

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