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Sustainable Diet: How to Eat Environmentally Friendly?

What do we actually mean by the terms sustainable eating and sustainable food production? Don’t these concepts really raise the question of how to produce enough nutritionally dense food to support the needs of the world’s population without damaging our ecosystems and our immunity?

Environmentally friendly food is not just a matter of how food is produced, it is also a matter of what we eat. There is a direct link between the way food is produced, what we put in our plates, and our health. This is one of the core issues of sustainable eating. 

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." Albert Einstein.

All studies that closely examine the use of natural resources in relation to food production reach the same conclusion: the gap between plant-based diet requirements and animal-based diet requirements is enormous

The environmental cost of modern food production

The three natural resources needed to produce food are land, water and fuel. In addition, one must also take air pollution into account such as carbon dioxide emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels during food production and transformation processes as well as methane and nitrous oxide emissions from cattle farming.

A 2006 study from the United Nations supports Einstein's theory by pointing to livestock farming as the first cause of greenhouse gas emissions. 

More greenhouse gas effects are due to food production than to transportation! 

This may seem unbelievable at first but does make sense when explained. Cars and other means of transport generate carbon dioxide; "factory cows" produce methane and nitrous oxide. The global warming potential of methane and nitrous oxide is 296 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. "Factory cows" are now fed with wheat, corn and soy instead of grass. This change of diet causes digestive problems and mass production of gas. And, in addition, there is also manure... 65% of the world's nitrous oxide emanates from livestock manure.

Raising animals for food the way it is done by modern farming is a total aberration. 

Here are some figures: because of the amount of wheat, corn and soy eaten by cows, it takes 20 times as much land to grow beef for protein as it does to grow plants for protein. This represents 30% of the land surface of the planet!

70% of food grown today is intended for animals. 

Some simple arithmetic may help. A cow needs to eat about 7 kgs of corn or soy to produce 400g of meat…

The United Nations has established a useful account of water resources. Their studies state that 75% of the planet is covered in water and 97,5% of this is salt water. This leaves us with 2,5% of fresh water. Remove the 70% ice, and you are left with 30% of fresh water. And if you take into account the fact that most of it is polluted, this leaves us with less than 1% available for human use

Now, the latest issue for alarm is that 70% of this 1% is used for irrigation. And what do we irrigate? Mainly wheat, corn and soy... to produce livestock intended to feed humans with meat devoid of nutrients.

Sustainable food production and health

The healthier the soil and the water, the more nutritious the food will be. Eating whole foods dense in nutrients means eating less and consequently producing less. But it also means that the food we eat really supports metabolic functions. This is important. Post-war years and the mechanisation of agriculture have brought more food for more people. The belief at the time was that more food meant more nourishment. Mass and volume were the goals; unfortunately the quality of the food was not considered in the process.

The result today is a drastic loss of minerals in the soil, shops packed with nutrient-free foods and a frightening rise in new types of diseases caused by improper diet.

Simply put, here is what happens: the consumption of calories without minerals and vitamins lead to chronic hunger, overeating and weight gain. Weight gain in turn increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cardio-vascular diseases. Health is not built on calories but on nutrient density.

Solutions for sustainable eating

May Einstein be heard!

If land were used to grow non GMO organic vegetable protein such as hemp, kale, legumes instead of GMO wheat, corn and soy to feed animals not only would we be able to feed more than double the US population but we could feed them with nutrient-dense foods, thus breaking the vicious circle of under nourishment, disease and environmental catastrophe.

Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is very probably one of the solutions. But should you still choose to eat meat, make it an occasional habit and be certain the animal has been grazing naturally on grass and other plants such as flaxseed or barley. Chicken must be fed with flaxseed. One of the reasons for a general deficiency in omega 3 type fats in modern diets is the change in animal nutrition mentioned in the above paragraph. 

The food choices we make have a wider impact on the planet than we can imagine. Going for a plant-based diet is one of the solutions. Being a vegan or vegetarian does not mean just not eating animal products. As with any other diet, it must be conducted in a healthy way. Carbs and protein sources are needed. Eating complex carbohydrates will ensure you get a proper amount of minerals and amino acids. Protein sources such as lentils, beans, hemp, and pumpkin seeds satisfy your nutritional needs with less impact on the environment.

Legumes (such as lentils, beans, chick peas, etc.) are the basis of both a healthy and environmentally friendly diet. Their distinctive feature is that they fix nitrogen through their symbiotic association with nitrogen fixing bacteria. They also require very little water. This means that they do not need any fertilisers or manure and have a very low carbon impact. They are certainly the key to the most sustainable diets on the planet.

Nutrition wise, legumes are amongst the most nourishing foods on earth. Their protein, mineral, antioxidant, vitamin and fibre content are just amazing!

Eating nutrient dense foods will help you avoid cravings. You will also eat less, digest and assimilate more easily. Digestion takes up a tremendous amount of energy and produces a lot of waste. 

The idea behind a sustainable diet is to use as little energy as possible in digestion, to assimilate the most nutrients and to create as little waste as possible in return for getting maximum energy!

The same optimising principles should be applied in agriculture: obtaining as much energy as possible through more nutrient dense food while cutting down on waste and the use of resources (digestion). 

What would a sustainable diet plan be?

These few tips should be a helpful guide...

  • Breakfast: vegetable protein (hemp, pumpkin), seeds and nuts, lemon juice, fresh fruit (check out our recipes!)
  • Lunch: vegetable sauté with a side dish of beans or lentils. 
  • Dinner: Vegetable curry with whole grain rice

Biscuits and cakes may be made from your local farmer's flour; sweet potatoes, fruit and nuts make up a healthy snack.

Interested in discovering more about healthy, vegan, and sustainable diets? Subscribe to our newsletter for regular updates! Also, check our recipe section - eating sustainable is not only the right thing to do, but also exceptionally delicious!

Author: Marie-Noëlle Bourgeois, Nutritionist at Bounce Up Micronutrition

Further Reading 

Albert Einstein (2015). “Bite-Size Einstein: Quotations on Just About Everything from the Greatest Mind of the Twentieth Century”, p.15, St. Martin's Press

Jeremy D. Murray, Cheng-Wu Liu, Yi Chen, Anthony J. Miller, Nitrogen sensing in legumes, Journal of Experimental Botany, Volume 68, Issue 8, 1 April 2017, Pages 1919–1926, 

Food and agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Agriculture and Consummer Protection department, "Sptlight : Livestock Impacts on the Environment", November 2006, http://www.fao.org/livestock-environment/en/

Brian Halweil, Critical Issue Report: Still no Free Lunch, Eroded by Pursuit of High Yields, Sep 01, 2007

David Pimentel, Marcia Pimentel, Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 78, Issue 3, September 2003, Pages 660S–663S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/78.3.660S

Hillary Mayel, UN highlights World Water Crisis, National Geographic News, June 5, 2003, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/freshwater-crisis/

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