02
FEB
2011

The Climate Change Diet: better health for you and the planet

Recent months have dished up an undeniable serve of extreme weather. Australia, Brazil, Southern Africa and Pakistan have been battered with monumental floods and storms. Christmas found many in Europe and North America stranded by record blizzards. While there will always be deniers, the evidence for climate change continues to mount. The most effective solutions may lie in a major rethink of how first world nations live and consume, ultimately impacting on the way that all of us eat.

Agricultural methods have evolved in relation to consumer demands. The production of animal-based foods has an irrevocably higher demand on resources, making the modern Western diet unsustainable.

”The nonvegetarian diet required 2.9 times more water, 2.5 times more primary energy, 13 times more fertilizer, and 1.4 times more pesticides than did the vegetarian diet.” Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5)

How does climate change impact health?

According to the British Medical Journal, “strong evidence already exists that climate change will affect rates of malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria, deaths as a result of floods, and temperature related deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

On the flip side there are irrefutable individual health benefits from reducing your carbon footprint. For example, choosing to walk or cycle rather than drive has a positive impact on fitness, weight loss and may even normalize blood fats. By cutting down on animal products alone, the estimated reduction in cardiovascular events is around 15%.

What is “The Climate Change Diet”?

Like some of the most effective diets “The Climate Change Diet” is not a hard and fast menu. This diet is more a collection of ideas from many sources on how individuals can consume food more ethically for the health of the planet. The primary impact is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions created by agriculture, as well as the production and distribution of food.

My take on a diet for a healthier planet

Avoid food waste. All good diets require a little planning. According to Foodwise Australians throw out 136 kilos/per person/per year in food waste. That’s $5.2 billion a year of food we waste as a nation. Not only has energy been wasted in growing, processing and distributing, but also the garbage goes into landfill creating more methane. Planning means buying less unnecessary food and saving you money. Try not eating out when you have fresh food in the fridge.
Reduce or stop eating meat and dairy products. If nothing else get on the Meatless Mondays bandwagon (eating no meat once a week).
Downsize your serve of flesh-foods. For the hardened carnivores, remember a serve of meat is the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand. If you exercise to the point of sweating or have a physically active job, meat is an appropriate form of protein. For the days you’ve been sedentary stick to legumes, beans, nuts and seeds to meet your protein requirements.
Focus meals around less energy intensive plant-based foods. Grains, legumes, seeds, fruits and vegetables create satisfying meals. Not only does their production have a smaller carbon footprint but it’s also kinder on your wallet and your waistline.
Choose less processed foods. Each step of the processing chain requires energy. So try using dried beans to cook from scratch rather than canned, fresh vegetables over frozen or making your own biscuits rather than buying them. Carnivores might consider a small kangaroo steak over ham or salami.
Buy local/in season produce whenever possible. Be aware of where your food comes from. Enjoy the pleasures of seasonality – the first mango of the season or the freshness of a locally grown strawberry.
Get creative. Do you really need to eat out of season, imported fruit just because you’re getting bored of apples and pears in winter? Get creative – try poaching fruit with spices for a change of flavour.

While there are no hard and fast rules to my “climate change diet”, the key is to eat more consciously.

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How can the Climate Change Diet make me healthier?

The conventional Western diet is heavy in energy-dense animal proteins and fats. Coupled with the fact most of us live a less physically active life, it doesn’t take a genius to see how this equation can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (blocked arteries, stroke, high blood pressure, heart attacks etc), colon, breast and prostate cancer – to name but a few scourges of modern health.

A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables has been associated with reduced risk of macular degeneration, arthritis and osteoporosis, amongst other life-limiting conditions.

To optimize vegetarian/vegan nutrition, read more in the links below.

Whatever you choose to eat, it must be enjoyable. It can take a while to get used to new foods – so start slowly, introducing one new type of food at a time. Regardless of being an omnivore or a vegan, the suggestions above can help reduce your carbon footprint – if enough of us reduce our own food waste and decrease the demand for animal-based foods, it will make a difference.

Resources

An easy to follow article from Zen Habits on effortless ways to become vegetarian.

My article on ethical eating.

More on the Climate Change Diet from ABC Health.

The lowdown on Meatless Mondays

Lisa Dempster on being vegan.

Macrobiotic resources

Vegan recipes with flair at the Post Punk Kitchen.

For Climate Change Diet-friendly recipes, see my review of Feel Good Food.

Update December 2014

It’s official!

Curbing the world’s huge and increasing appetite for meat is essential to avoid devastating climate change, according to a new report. But governments and green campaigners are doing nothing to tackle the issue due to fears of a consumer backlash, warns the analysis from the thinktank Chatham House.

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, but a worldwide survey by Ipsos MORI in the report finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming.

The Guardian

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About the Author
Gill Stannard is one of Australia's most experienced naturopaths and mentors, now in her third decade of service to the healing profession. You can work with Gill in person in Sydney (and every couple of months in Melbourne), or from anywhere in the world via Skype. What's stopping you from living a healthier and happier life? Contact coaching@gillstannard.com.au for more details, or book you consultation at http://bookeo.com/gillstannard Gill has written hundreds of articles on this site, just use the search box to find more . Like my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/citynaturaltherapies
  1. Anna Reply

    Great show today Gill, thanks!

    I just wanted to share some of my own experience and reading on being vego and my close personal interest in climate change (close and personal because I’m a member of the planetary ecosystem, just like everyone and everything else!)

    I’ve been vego all my life, my mum became vego before I was even conceived. I’ve been anaemic twice, no more than my meat eating friends. I’m as tall as would be expected given my parents’ heights and in a low healthy weight range. And I didn’t feel left out at friend’s birthday parties when I was a kid, though I did eat an awful lot of fairy bread.

    For me being vego is mostly a matter of habit, as is being a meat eater for most people I tend to think. But the best reason I think for being vego is the positive impact it can have on the wider world, both in terms of climate change and resource use. This is the main reason I’m raising my children as vegetarians.

    One of the best articles I’ve read along these lines is by Barry Brook and Geoff Russell. And this article by renowned climate scientist James Hansen outlines why it is so important to reduce methane emissions.

    On the topic of food miles, this paper by Christopher Weber found that, in the USA at least, that reducing meat intake had a far more significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions than eating locally did. I’d think the situation in Australia is similar.

    This paper from the CSIRO gives an insight into water used for food production in Australia, and also supports eating less meat.

    And I couldn’t agree with you more Gill about the awfulness of meat substitutes! They only make you think of what they’re pretending to be, not what they actually are. A vegetarian diet generally means a slightly different attitude to meals, it is much less about the central ‘hero’ ingredient in a meal and much more an ensemble of dishes and ingredients.

    • Gill Stannard Reply

      Wonderful links Anna. Thanks for sharing them. Incidentally I was frequently anaemic as a child when I ate meat 2-3 times a day (I really ate my lifetime supply in my formative years). Since stopping both meat and dairy for over 20 years my iron levels have been within normal range, much to the chagrin of some carnivores in my life 🙂

  2. Kirsty Costa Reply

    Hi Gill,

    Thanks again for a wonderful ‘Health Trip’ and an inspirational email update. I am also a vegetarian for environmental reasons. My parents and I have been vegetarian pretty much since we saw with our own eyes the devastation that cattle grazing had on Northern Queensland.

    I did some personal research over the Summer break about the relationship between climate change and food. I write a vegetarian recipe blog to help people who want to be vego but don’t eat wheat or dairy. I’ve recently written an article about ‘Climate Friendly Food’ which can be found at http://vegematarian.com.au/2011/01/28/climate-friendly-food/

    I was surprised to find that eating deep-sea fish has almost as high carbon footprint as eating graising animals because of the fuel needed to keep at fishing boat out in the deep ocean! The footprint of farmed fish came up about the same as chicken. And people often forget about dairy products too.

    I also work for CERES Community Environment Park which has just opened a new restaurant called ‘The Merri’ which is helping to tackle climate change. My job at CERES is to work with schools and help educate teachers and students about sustainable living. I think that the Climate Change Diet should include reducing food wastage as methane also comes from rotting organic waste in landfill tips. There should also be an emphasis on composting and only ordering/buying/growing what you can eat. There’s a great website that talks about food wastage — http://www.foodwise.com.au/

    Thanks again for all that you offer and GO TEAM!

    ~ Kirsty 🙂

    • Gill Stannard Reply

      Thanks Kirsty, am a big fan of Ceres (first went there as a naturopathic student in 1988!) and have been promoting the organic veggie boxes to my clients since they started. The deep sea fish carbon footprint is new to me, so will google it further to find out more. Thanks for letting me know.
      BTW love your blog 🙂

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