PhotoFor many environmentally conscious consumers, diet is just as important as any other eco-friendly act. Now, researchers from Tulane University have found that following a climate-friendly diet can impart health benefits as well.

“People whose diets had a lower carbon footprint were eating less red meat and dairy -- which contribute to a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions and are high in saturated fat -- and consuming more healthful foods like poultry, whole grains, and plant-based proteins,” said lead researcher Diego Rose.

Healthy planet, healthy diet

To see how consumers’ diets affected the environment, the researchers analyzed a federal survey that observes consumers’ eating habits. They compared the results of the survey with a database they created that measures the relationship between food production and greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers then looked at each diet in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and nutritional value and began ranking the diets based on their effect on the environment.

Diets that were more eco-friendly were found to be healthier overall, though they were also found to be lacking key nutrients, such as vitamin D, iron, and calcium. Additionally, the diets included refined grains and sugars, which are good for the environment but not for the body.

The group whose diets weren’t environmentally friendly were found to be eating more solid fats, dairy, and meat, and their greenhouse gas emissions were five times higher than the eco-friendly group.

Moving forward, the researchers are hopeful that these findings can help spark change in both consumers and legislators, as diet does have an effect on the environment.

“We can have both,” Rose said. “We can have healthier diets and reduce our food-related emissions. And it doesn’t require the extreme of eliminating foods entirely. For example, if we reduce the amount of red meat in our diets, and replace it with other protein foods such as chicken, eggs, or beans, we could reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health at the same time.”

Hurting the environment

While Rose and his team explored the way consumers can be more conscious of the effects their diets can have on the environment, a recent study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that healthy diets can actually be hurting the environment.

According to the study, healthy diets are the driving force behind food waste, and fruits and vegetables are the prime targets to end up in the garbage can. The study also found that 150,000 pounds of food is wasted every day across the United States, and this affects the agricultural process, as it wastes irrigation water, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and farmland.

“Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” said researcher Meredith Niles. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.”

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