Radar Plot of Food Health and Environmental Outcomes
Healthy Eating is Good for the Planet

If you’re keen to do your bit for the environment, maybe you’ll find an increased desire to eat healthily when you see the findings from this study

Eat Healthily for Two - Yourself and the Planet

Published 14 November 2019 | Article based on a press release from University of Minnesota

Key Takeaways

  • Foods associated with improved health have the lowest environmental impact
  • Foods associated with the biggest increases in disease risks have the largest negative environmental impact

Widespread adaptation of healthier diets would markedly reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and food production, according to new research from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University.

For the first time, researchers have tied the health impacts of foods to their overall environmental impact.

The report, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concludes that foods with positive health outcomes have among the lowest environmental impacts, while other foods, such as red meat, can be especially harmful to both.

"The foods making up our diets have a large impact on both ourselves and our environment. This study shows that eating healthier also means eating more sustainably," said David Tilman, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

"Normally, if a food product is good for one aspect of a person's health, it's better for other health outcomes, as well. The same holds for environmental outcomes."

The researchers explored how consuming 15 different food groups is, on average, associated with five different health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation.

Research Findings

Almost all foods associated with improved health outcomes (e.g., whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil) have the lowest environmental impacts

Foods with the largest increases in disease risks -- primarily unprocessed and processed red meat such as pork, beef, mutton and goat -- are consistently associated with the largest negative environmental impacts;

Two notable exceptions are fish, a generally healthier food with moderate environmental impacts, and sugar-sweetened beverages, which pose health risks but have a low environmental impact.

Researchers concluded that transitioning diets toward greater consumption of healthier foods would also improve environmental sustainability.

Radar Plot of Food Health and Environmental Outcomes

Combining all data into a “radar plot” for each food enables comparison across the multiple health and environmental impacts of each food.

SSBs are sugar-sweetened beverages.

Radar Plot of Food Health and Environmental Outcomes

Reproduced with permission from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

View Image

The Left side of each radar plots shows health outcomes; the Right side shows environmental impacts.

Researchers Comments

"This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment," said Jason Hill, bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

"It's important that all of us think about the health impacts of the foods we eat. We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth, as well."

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Sources and References

  1. Press Release: Research brief: Nutritious foods have lower environmental impact than unhealthy foods University of Minnesota
  2. Michael A Clark, Marco Springmann, Jason Hill, and David Tilman Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods PNAS November 12 2019; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906908116
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