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  • Brian Bender, PhD

A Sustainable Diet: Personal, Population, & Planetary Health

Updated: May 2

A sustainable diet is a multidimensional idea. But at its core, a sustainable diet addresses two key themes.

  1. Health of Humanity

  2. Health of our Planet

We are increasingly stressing natural resources as global populations continue to rise. Large-scale agriculture often requires the destruction and cultivation of wild lands, reducing wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem services in the process. And oceanic fish stocks are dangerously low.

Meanwhile, human health continues to suffer from malnutrition, bifurcating into two distinct forms: overconsumption and under-nutrition.

As a global population, we still have populations, in rich and poor nations alike, who cannot afford or do not have access to enough healthy calories for optimal health.

And for those that do, on average we tend to overconsume calories and non-nutritive foods that are at the heart of our global chronic disease epidemic.

An unsustainable diet, by its very definition, cannot go on forever. And by many measures, the world’s current dietary practices would fall into this category. In this article, we’ll discuss why a sustainable diet is a good thing, and what constitutes the best sustainable diets.

What does a Sustainable Diet Look Like?

Luckily, a sustainable diet for the planet is typically a healthier diet for people, too. In this regard, we thankfully do not have to make tradeoffs.

But in other dimensions, people and societies do need to make tradeoffs. For some foods, costs and availability are a challenge. For others, taste and culture interfere.

A sustainable diet is rich in vegetables. A Sustainable Diet is Veggie-Heavy

The healthiest diets for humans are heavily slanted towards fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.

Agriculturally, growing vegetables requires significantly fewer resources than raising livestock for meat production. Fewer resources also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, there’s one vegetable you can eat that can reduce your environmental footprint more than downsizing your car, vigilantly turning off light bulbs, or taking shorter showers. Beans!

One study showed that if the U.S. shifted its consumption of beef to beans (still allowing for the same level of consumption of other meats like chicken), the U.S. would reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 46-74% of the reductions needed to meet 2020 GHG targets for the U.S.

Therefore, the less meat you eat, the more sustainable your diet becomes for planetary health.

However, a few interesting technological developments will soon challenge the severity of this discrepancy. For example, clean meat products like Memphis Meats may recreate meat for consumption with significantly fewer resources, less greenhouse gas emissions, far less land, and all without the ethical dilemmas of animal slaughter.

Similarly, Finless Foods and others are doing the same for fish, potentially helping to alleviate the current over-fishing crisis.

Clean energy will also disrupt the equation, as EV transport of food becomes less and less of an environmental burden.

But until we master and scale these new technologies, veggies will remain a far more environmentally sustainable option.

And the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are still unmatched for human health and longevity. A sustainable diet is sustainable for human health, too.

A recent meta-analysis that included data from 36 randomized controlled trials involving 1,803 participants showed that diets that replace plant-based proteins with red meat results in a higher cardiovascular disease risk profile.

Summed up by Harvard Health,

“Asking ‘Is red meat good or bad?’ is useless,” said Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and senior author of the study. “It has to be ‘Compared to what?’ If you replace burgers with cookies or fries, you don’t get healthier. But if you replace red meat with healthy plant protein sources, like nuts and beans, you get a health benefit.”

Diets that significantly lack fruits and vegetables are not sustainable for human health. As our chronic disease epidemic is showing, the lack of fruits and vegetables leads to disease and in many cases, early death.

In fact, a recent report in The Lancet reports that 1 in every 5 global deaths is due to a poor diet! Chief among the poor dietary risks, interestingly, was not just overconsumption of unhealthy nutrients but a lack of fruits and vegetables.

A sustainable diet is affordable. A Sustainable Diet is Inexpensive

If the healthiest diet for the planet and your health cost you $100/day, it will not be sustainable for the vast majority of the world.

Therefore, the best sustainable diets must be cost effective while maintaining healthy attributes for people and the planet.

There’s one food group that we’ve already spoken about that fits the bill. Again, it’s beans! Using the USDA Food Database, one pound of dried black beans yields 1,538 calories, while one pound of ground beef yields approximately 689 calories. When trying to meet your daily caloric needs, beef becomes more like 5.5 times the cost.

A sustainable diet leaves as minimal an impact on the environment as possible. A Sustainable Diet is Locally Grown

Before the world shifts to renewable and clean energy sources, it is impossible to ignore the transportation costs of food. And on average, food travels a long way from the farm to the table.

Therefore, in the meantime, locally grown foods will have the potential for a significantly smaller impact on the planet.

Global populations continue to move to cities. That means locally grown foods enters the realm of urban agriculture.

Advances in agricultural technologies and new business models are accelerating the growth of urban agriculture.

For example, vertical farming, robotic automation, and hydroponic techniques are enabling cheaper, higher productivity yields within urban environments. And some cities are offering tax incentives for turning vacant lots into urban gardens.

One remaining challenge with locally grown foods are costs. The smaller scale of production and the higher cost of city rents often drives prices higher.

As we mentioned before, an expensive diet is not sustainable.

However, the growth in high-yield productivity in urban commercial operations will continue to drive down costs in the future and make locally grown produce a highly sustainable option.

A sustainable diet is one you want to eat, forever! A Sustainable Diet is Diverse & Delicious

A sustainable diet needs to be nutritious. To promote long-term health, your diet should maintain adequate balance of nutrients, including mcronutrients and micronutrients. One simple and effective way of eating this variety of nutrients is to eat a variety of foods. Specifically, it is important to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.

This variety will ensure your diet is sustainable from a nutrition and health perspective. But this variety is sustainable for another reason.

It’s more interesting!

A diet that is sustainable is one people want to continue eating, forever. That means it can’t only be good for physical health, financial health, and environmental health. It needs to be good for your mental health.

Food is a part of culture and society. We gather around food with friends and family, and celebrate holidays and celebrations.

Food is an important part of joy in most people’s lives, and therefore a sustainable diet is one that you (and society) wants to eat!

A variety of delicious food options ensures you will continue eating it, forever!


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