Slashing your carbon footprint one meal at a time
What is one thing every single person does that intimately links our health to the environment?
We are interconnected with our ecosystems, nature, and the Earth. When things start deteriorating outside us, it affects us internally. The changing climate impacts weather patterns that can cause floods, droughts, excessive heat, extreme weather events, and food and water insecurity—all of which can affect our health. Some examples of health effects that have increased risks linked to environmental changes and extreme weather events are:
- Heart and respiratory diseases
- Gestational diabetes
- Adverse mental health outcomes (such as suicides and self-harm, mood disorders, schizophrenia, neurotic and anxiety disorders, and other conditions caused by the gradual decrease in the functioning of the brain)
- Several different types of infections (such as lyme disease, cholera, dysentery, malaria, dengue, chikungunya, leishmaniasis, and schistosomiasis[7,8]).
Our actions influence our world and there are many things we can do to prevent or slow climate change. For example, we can turn down our air conditioners and buy a more fuel-efficient car so we use less fossil fuel. We can reduce the number of items we purchase, especially those with excessive packaging and that have traveled a long way to get to us. We can sort our waste by reusing and recycling everything possible.
And you might be surprised to know how much our food choices can make a difference, too.
Agriculture’s environmental impact
Growing food has a very large environmental impact. How we farm affects the land, water, and air. According to a review study in the journal PLoS One, agriculture uses more than 33 percent of cultivable land, 70 percent of our use of freshwater, and contributes up to 30 percent of human-produced greenhouse gases. The more land and water we use, and the more greenhouse gases we release, the more we affect the health of Mother Earth. This contributes to more climate change, reduces biodiversity, and increases soil degradation and freshwater scarcity. As you’ll soon see, one food has the biggest impact on our land and freshwater use and greenhouse gases.[9,11].
Then, vice versa, the weather patterns and climate affect how we grow food. In areas that are becoming drier, more water is needed. Not to mention the widespread crop destruction from extreme weather events or pests that are flourishing now more than ever!
It’s clear that we are truly interconnected with the Earth, and our food choices can have huge influence because foods that are healthier for us—like fruits and vegetables—are also healthier for the environment. Win-win!
We can all tread a bit more lightly on the Earth and make sustainable choices that reduce negative health outcomes for us and the nature all around us.
One unusual tip to live more sustainably
Before we discuss some of the small and easy food choices that can effectively improve your health and the planet’s health, I want to share an interesting way to live more sustainably: practice gratitude. New research shows that when people feel grateful for what they have, they’re less likely to take more resources than they need.[12,13] You can do this by regularly remembering times you felt grateful, using a gratitude journal, or trying gratitude meditations.
Also consider sharing your sustainable actions with friends, family, or on social media to set an example, show your leadership, and encourage others to do the same. The more people that contribute, the better off we’ll all be.
The two sustainable food habits that make the most difference
There are so many aspects of what we eat that it’s hard to know what makes the most difference. Is it eating locally produced food? Food that’s in season or unprocessed? All of these options are going to have some benefits. The question is: Which food strategies have the biggest benefits for the climate?
The good news is that making more sustainable food choices can be as simple as swapping some servings of the bigger impact foods (like beef) with more climate-friendly options (like vegetables or plant-based proteins such as lentils, tofu, or veggie burgers), buying only what you need, and reducing food waste.
Let’s talk about the two main areas where we can make the biggest positive impact. The first is choosing what to buy and produce and how much. The second is all about how you can reduce the amount of food that goes to waste in your home and community.
1 – Cheng, J., Xu, Z., Bambrick, H., Prescott, V., Wang, N., Zhang, Y., Su, H., Tong, S., & Hu, W. (2019). Cardiorespiratory effects of heatwaves: A systematic review and meta-analysis of global epidemiological evidence. Environmental research, 177, 108610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2019.108610
2 – Preston, E. V., Eberle, C., Brown, F. M., & James-Todd, T. (2020). Climate factors and gestational diabetes mellitus risk – a systematic review. Environmental health : a global access science source, 19(1), 112. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-020-00668-w
3 – Liu, J., Varghese, B. M., Hansen, A., Xiang, J., Zhang, Y., Dear, K., Gourley, M., Driscoll, T., Morgan, G., Capon, A., & Bi, P. (2021). Is there an association between hot weather and poor mental health outcomes? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environment international, 153, 106533. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106533
4 – Baylis M. (2017). Potential impact of climate change on emerging vector-borne and other infections in the UK. Environmental health : a global access science source, 16(Suppl 1), 112. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-017-0326-1
5 – Asadgol, Z., Badirzadeh, A., Niazi, S., Mokhayeri, Y., Kermani, M., Mohammadi, H., & Gholami, M. (2020). How climate change can affect cholera incidence and prevalence? A systematic review. Environmental science and pollution research international, 27(28), 34906–34926. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-09992-7
6 – Wu, X., Liu, J., Li, C., & Yin, J. (2020). Impact of climate change on dysentery: Scientific evidences, uncertainty, modeling and projections. The Science of the total environment, 714, 136702. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.136702
7 – Tidman, R., Abela-Ridder, B., & de Castañeda, R. R. (2021). The impact of climate change on neglected tropical diseases: a systematic review. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 115(2), 147–168. https://doi.org/10.1093/trstmh/traa192
8 – Ahmed, T., Hyder, M. Z., Liaqat, I., & Scholz, M. (2019). Climatic Conditions: Conventional and Nanotechnology-Based Methods for the Control of Mosquito Vectors Causing Human Health Issues. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(17), 3165. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16173165
9 – Grinspoon, P. (2019, March 26). Cleaner living: Plant-friendly is planet-friendly. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cleaner-living-plant-friendly-is-planet-friendly-2019032516269
10 – Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J., Smith, P., & Haines, A. (2016). The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review. PloS one, 11(11), e0165797. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0165797
11 – Ritchie, H. (2020, January 24). You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local
12 – Svoboda, E. (2021, April 28). Can gratitude help you live more sustainably? Greater Good Magazine.
13 – Kates, S., & DeSteno, D. (2020). Gratitude reduces consumption of depleting resources. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10.1037/emo0000936. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000936
14 – Lowrey, A. (2021, April 6). Your Diet Is Cooking the Planet: But two simple changes can help. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/04/rules-eating-fight-climate-change/618515/