Foods that reduce the risk of health problems are also better for the environment, new analysis has found.
Eating more vegetables, pulses and wholegrains was found to have positive health and environmental outcomes while eating more red and processed meat was found to have the greatest negative effect, including environmental impacts 10 to 100 times larger than those of plant-source foods.
Researchers looked at the effect that eating an additional serving per day of 15 common foods has on incidences of diseases such as diabetes and cancer and compared it with the impact on environmental degradation. They found that the same dietary changes that could help reduce the risk of diet-related ill health could also help meet international sustainability goals in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions and water scarcity.
Of the foods associated with improved health — whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish — all except fish were found to have among the lowest environmental impacts, although fish has significantly lower impacts than red and processed meats.
Foods associated with the largest negative environmental impacts—unprocessed and processed red meat — are also consistently associated with the largest increases in disease risk.
The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports previous research from the likes of the Eat-Lancet Commission and WWF which found that diets high in plant-based foods are better for health and the environment.
“Diets are a leading source of poor health and environmental harm. Continuing to eat the way we do threatens societies, through chronic ill health and degradation of Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and water resources,” said lead author Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford. “Choosing better, more sustainable diets is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment.”
Clark added that although how and where a food is produced affects its environmental impact it does so to a much smaller extent than food choice.
The authors said that actions by consumers, policy makers, and food companies could help shift diets towards healthier and more environmentally sustainable outcomes.