Food Sustainability and Your Health

by | Jun 21, 2021

What is Food Sustainability?

The topic of sustainability has become increasingly popular in recent years. Now, it’s even more so as it relates to healthcare and the food we eat. You may be wondering what food sustainability is, how it’s relevant to you and your health, and what steps you can take to move toward a more planet-friendly diet. Even more importantly, how sustainable diet practices that are good for the environment can be good for your health. 

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present generation, without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainable food and water systems assure that humans will have optimal and equitable access to healthy food and water now, and in the future. As more research emerges about the environmental effects of food production and consumption, the more we learn about our role in sustainability as consumers. The great thing about incorporating food sustainability practices into your own lifestyle, is that it comes along with added health benefits, too! 

Effects of Livestock Production – Health and Environmental

The four leading causes of death in the United States are directly linked to the foods we eat. Diabetes, stroke, cancer, and heart disease are also the biggest source of healthcare costs. Diets high in saturated fat and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are associated with higher risk for developing these diseases. The average American diet contains an excess of animal proteins that are high in saturated fats. 

Additionally, livestock production has a negative impact on the environment. Approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions are a product of livestock production. The practices used in industrial meat production cause contamination and degradation of the water, air, and soil. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture have been linked to an increase in antibiotic-resistant infections, which are responsible for 35,000 deaths in the United States each year. 

Choosing to transition our diets toward foods that are produced in sustainable ways can improve our health and the health of the environment. By reducing the amount of animal protein we consume, and increasing the number of fruits and vegetables in our diet, we can reduce the risk for nutrition-related diseases while helping protect the environment, and preserve the food supply for generations to come. 

Shifting to a “Plant-Forward” Diet

In a survey published in 2018, many Americans reported reducing their meat consumption despite having strong preferences for meat in their diet. Two-thirds of survey takers reported reducing red and processed meat in their diets, citing health and cost concerns as the reason. Reducing the amount of meat in your diet does not mean you have to go to the extreme of becoming a vegetarian or vegan. It can be as simple as creating more “plant-forward” meals and snacks. 

Plant-forward is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes foods from plant sources such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, plant oils, and herbs and spices. This style of cooking reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability. 

Tips for food sustainability

Here are some tips for adopting a “plant-forward” approach to eating:

  • Think produce first. Include a large variety of fruits and vegetables across all meals and snacks. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables at meals. 
  • Buy fresh, seasonal, and local. Visit local farmers’ markets and produce stands.
  • Prioritize whole-grains before refined grains. Use 100% whole-grain bread, brown rice, and whole-grain/higher protein pasta. Use white flour and other refined carbohydrates sparingly.
  • Focus on whole, minimally processed foods. These foods are typically higher in micronutrient value and less likely to contain high levels of added sugars, saturated or trans fats, and sodium. 
    • Some minimally processed foods (low-sodium tomato paste, wine, nut butters, frozen fruits and vegetables, mayonnaise, dark chocolate, canned low-sodium beans, 100 percent whole-grain crackers, fresh-cut vegetables, spice mixtures, yogurt, reduced sodium sauces, many kinds of canned fish and shellfish, among other things) can be incorporated into healthy meals.
  • Add nuts and legumes to your meals and snacks. Nuts and legumes are full of flavor, contain plant protein, and help keep you feeling full. Nuts and legumes are an excellent replacement for animal protein.
  • Choose healthier oils. Using plant oils and other ingredients that contain unsaturated fats, such as canola, soy, peanut, and olive oils, are simple alternatives to create healthier meals and snacks.
  • Use poultry and eggs in moderation. Antibiotic-free chicken and other poultry in moderation is a good choice for healthier protein with less of an environmental impact than red meat. Eggs in moderation (an average of one per day) can be part of a healthy diet for most people. Recipes that mix whole eggs and egg whites for omelets, and eggs with vegetables, are ideal. 
  • Choose to eat red meat less often. Red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) can be enjoyed occasionally and in small amounts. Current recommendations limit red meat consumption to two 3-ounce servings per week.
  • Reduce added sugars. There is nothing wrong with an occasional dessert, but get creative and use dark chocolate, nuts, and fresh or dried fruit in place of typical high sugar options.
  • Cut salt and rethink flavor from the ground up. Use spices, herbs, citrus, and other aromatics to create flavorful meals without the need for salt. 
  • Drink healthy: water, coffee, tea. Water is always the best choice when choosing a beverage for hydration. Coffee and tea without added flavors and sugar are calorie-free and contain antioxidants, flavonoids, and other biologically active substances that may be good for health.

Food sustainability – good for you, good for the environment

Adopting a plant-forward approach to eating has many benefits for your health and the environment. Increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based sources of protein in your diet can improve your health and decrease the risk of developing disease. It also decreases the demand for animal agriculture and helps improve the sustainability of our food and water system and the environment. 

Which of these tips will you try incorporating into your healthy routine?


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