Here's What to Eat to Boost Your Health and Help the Environment

You know eating healthier is good for you. But did you know it benefits the environment, too?

Eating green is good for your body and the environment. (Image: sanjeri/E+/GettyImages)

That's right: Consuming foods associated with improved health and lower risk of disease — like whole-grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and olive oil — is better for Mother Earth, according to a large analysis published October 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Choose Mostly Plant-Based Foods

Researchers tracked the dietary patterns and health outcomes of tens of millions of people who ate Westernized diets and found that nutritious foods — apart from fish — caused less harm to the environment than foods linked to a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease and colorectal cancer, such as unprocessed and processed red meats.

The reason? Overall, producing plant-based foods involves less global greenhouse gasses (GHG) and land use, and it has less of an effect on fresh-water scarcity and nutrient pollution compared to manufacturing animal products.

Eat Fish in Moderation

OK, so what's the deal with fish? It's true that fish are super healthy for you, but they do have a greater impact on the environment than plant-based proteins like nuts and legumes. According to the PNAS study's authors, this is due in part to the wide variety of fish production methods, some of which create more GHG emissions than others.

This doesn't mean you should slash the swimmers from your diet completely, but rather focus on adding more plant-sourced foods into your daily menu.

You Should Still Limit Processed Foods

And what about ultra-processed and sugary foods? Since, in general, these products aren't sourced from animals, they tend to have fewer negative environmental effects too. But that's no excuse to chow down on junk.

Remember, ultra-processed foods contain fewer nutrients but are jam-packed with sugar, salt, saturated fat and additives, which can boost your risk for chronic diseases and an early death, per Harvard Health Publishing.

Lower Your Environmental Impact Even More

The good news? Making better decisions about food can help you live longer and leave a smaller footprint on Mother Earth — a win-win situation.

So, in addition to adding more eco-friendly plant-based foods to your diet and cutting back on red meats, what else can you do to keep the environment in good shape?

A few small adjustments to your food and shopping habits can go a long way, says Leslie Langevin, RD, author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook, who offers the following tips for improving environmental sustainability:

  • Opt for organic foods, which use fewer pesticides and encourage better land use practices.
  • Buy locally sourced fruits and vegetables whenever possible — reducing foods' transportation distance results in harmful CO2 emissions.
  • Choose food items with recyclable packaging and shop with your own reusable grocery bags.
For a healthy and sustainable dinner, try black bean burgers on a whole-grain bun with a side of baked sweet potato fries. (Image: jenifoto/iStock/GettyImages)

Get Started With This Sample Meal Plan

So, ready to do your part and save the world one meal at a time? Here's a simple, plant-focused meal plan from Langevin that's both good for your health and environmentally conscious.

Breakfast

  • Organic oatmeal with maple syrup or local honey
  • 1 cup of frozen berries
  • 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds

or

  • Two locally sourced, free-range, organic eggs with sautéed spinach (or other greens) and garlic
  • One slice of whole-grain bread with olive oil

Lunch

  • Salad with local, in-season veggies with roasted, crispy chickpeas, oil-and-vinegar dressing
  • Chia seed pudding on the side

or

  • Whole-grain bread with wild, sustainable canned tuna mixed with avocado, onion and celery
  • Sweet potato chips
  • An apple

Snack Ideas

  • Hummus and veggies
  • Popcorn with herbs and olive oil
  • Trail mix
  • Chocolate hummus and an apple
  • Edamame
  • Peanut butter with celery or an apple

Dinner

  • Broiled wild salmon or trout
  • Brown rice
  • Sautéed broccoli and cauliflower with pesto

or

  • Whole-grain pasta or bean-based pasta tossed with sautéed spinach, grilled chicken, garlic, olive oil and cherry tomatoes

or

  • Black bean burgers on a whole-grain bun
  • Side salad
  • Oven-roasted sweet potato fries
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