Study: Healthy Foods Better for People & the Environment

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Minneapolis, MN—Healthier diets have the potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and food production, according to research from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The researchers outlined the significance of the study, writing, “Dietary choices are a leading global cause of mortality and environmental degradation and threaten the attainability of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. To inform decision making and to better identify the multifaceted health and environmental impacts of dietary choices, we describe how consuming 15 different food groups is associated with 5 health outcomes and 5 aspects of environmental degradation.”

The study explored multiple human health and environmental impacts of 15 different food groups: chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, potatoes, processed red meat, refined grain cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meat, vegetables, and whole grain cereals. The researchers analyzed food-dependent linkages between and among 5 diet-dependent health outcomes in adults (type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and mortality) and 5 different environmental impacts of producing the foods (GHG emissions, land use, scarcity-weighted water use , and 2 forms of nutrient pollution—acidification and eutrophication).

Their results, according to an article titled Research Brief: Nutritious foods have a lower environmental impact than unhealthy foods from the University of Minnesota:

  • Nearly all foods associated with improved health outcomes, such as whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil, have the lowest environmental impacts;
  • Foods with the largest increases in disease risks (primarily unprocessed and processed red meat such as pork, beef, mutton and goat) are associated with the largest negative environmental impacts;
  • There are two notable exceptions: (1) Fish were categorized as a generally healthier food with moderate environmental impacts; (2) sugar-sweetened beverages pose health risks but have a low environmental impact.

“The foods making up our diets have a large impact on both ourselves and our environment,” said David Tilman, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. “This study shows that eating healthier also means eating more sustainably.”

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Jason Hill, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Professor at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, added, “This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment.” Hill noted that it is important to think about the health impacts of diet. “We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth, as well.”

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