Sustainable Healthy Diet and Environment
In developed countries, we have so many choices for food. Many foods are imported from all over the world and prepared in many forms. We eat them without thinking too much, but are they really good for our health and the environment? Do all these frozen meals, food supplements, snacks, and soft drinks nourish your body? Many studies don’t agree and the impact on the environment from those processed foods is huge. It turns out that eating good food for our bodies can solve many environmental problems. But first, we need to review our perception of “good food”.
There are so many healthy diet tips out there. However, some recommendations don’t have evidence.
Take food supplements to correct nutritional deficiencies: Do you know what nutrients you have or don’t have enough of? Because your body will not take more than it needs for now, taking supplements randomly will not give you any improvements. And supplements are not a replacement for real foods.
Use artificial sweeteners rather than sugar: Artificial sweeteners don’t have calories. But they disturb your gut’s health and do not help lose weight.
Count calories to lose weight: If you choose a food based on its calories you are ignoring the quality. When people focus on calories, they tend to go to low-fat low-calorie processed foods. For example, real yogurt made from fresh milk with no additives has much higher calories than yogurt made from skim milk, water, gelatin, artificial sweeteners, and a couple of pro-biotics. But real yogurt will have so many more good microbes for your guts than diet yogurt. Counting calories does not lead us to healthy choices.
Skipping breakfast is bad for you: It depends. The point is to give enough time for your gut to rest, ideally 14 hours. If you don’t eat food after 6 pm, you should eat breakfast. If you had late-night snacks, you may skip breakfast the next day.
There are popular diets such as Ketogenic, Veganism, Carnivore, Mediterranean, etc. As everyone has different health conditions, lifestyles, and microbiomes in the gut, there is no such a one-fits-all diet. However, the commonalities of healthy diets are very little amount of sugar and a lot of fiber.
The suggested maximum sugar intake per day is 25 to 35g. Natural food such as rice, fresh vegetables, and fruits have sugar, and you should avoid processed foods that usually contain added sugar. A fresh apple has about 10g of sugar, and you can imagine how easy it is to reach the maximum daily intake.
Fibers are important. There are two types of fibers, insoluble and soluble fibers. They need to work together in your intestine to form a gel which is a secondary barrier that prevents early absorption of sugar so that they don’t end up going to the liver. If you eat a fresh apple, you have both fibers, but apple juice does not have insoluble fiber and is as bad as Coke. Eat fresh foods instead of processed food to keep your liver stays healthy.
Gut Health Diet
There is a community of microbes that live in our bodies, 99% live in our lower intestines. They all have different abilities to produce different chemicals, proteins, and hormones that our body lacks. So, they are very important, and we cannot live without them. These microbes are different from person to person and that is why no one diet works for all. People with the chronic disease usually have a less diverse microbiome community.
To keep your microbiome community happy, eat what they like to eat. This means it would predominantly plants, a variety of high fiber plants. About 30 different plants including vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds per week.
Environmental Impact of Food
We can live without a TV and a boat, but everyone needs food. However, food is a major cause of the degradation of water, soil, and biodiversity. The problem is not about the increasing population to feed. It is the so inefficient way we produce and consume foods.
Over 30% of food is lost or wasted every year while 820 million people are still in hunger. Animal production is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector. 36% of the crops produced globally are used to feed livestock.
It seems most people are fed well in developed countries. But last 50 years, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases rates are going up and ultra-processed food rates are still going up. Clearly, something isn’t working, and we need to change what and how we eat for both us and the environment.
When we talk about climate change and environmental issues, how we generate and consume energy is the biggest discussion. Producing food is very resource intensive and uses a lot of energy from growing crops to disposing of final products. Energy directly consumed in agriculture is around 5% of the entire industry sector. However, the production of fertilizers accounts for 30% of energy consumption (or 90% in the Chemical industry). Then, there is energy consumption during manufacturing, transportation, and waste management processes.
Fresh food produced locally will have much less energy consumption compared to ultra-processed food with extras for processing, manufacturing, packaging, and storing.
If 30% of food is wasted, why do we still overproduce? One reason is the uncertainty of weather which we cannot control. However, there are things we should improve.
The current food systems and supply chains do not reflect the true demand and nutritional needs of the people. The industry estimates the demand for food will increase significantly and adopted farming methods to produce large quantities of 1 or 2 crops. This monoculture farming method is the cause of the decreasing yield because of degradation of soil and more chemicals. When crops are less resilient, farmers need to plan to harvest more just in case.
Food retailers and services often have a surplus of food to meet consumer demand. Yet they often throw out perfectly edible foods that don’t meet cosmetic standards. We should realize that vegetables and fruits are natural things, and they don’t need to have the same shape or size as same as we are all different.
One way to preserve unwanted foods is to produce ultra-processed foods. In this way, foods are not totally wasted but it creates other problems. There is a lot of room to reduce food waste in every stage of the process. Since people in developed countries are throwing food, we should have a system to divert food to the right place. This will reduce the need to overproduce.
As we touched on earlier, monoculture farming was once encouraged to increase production efficiency. But we started to see some drawbacks. A greater risk of diseases and pest outbreaks leads to more pesticides and fertilizers which pollute soil and water. Killing insects, microorganisms in the soil, and polluting water cause the loss of biodiversity in nature.
We need to focus on the quality of food instead of efficiency. Producing better quality food in more eco-friendly ways helps improve our health and the environment.
Plastic and Single-Use Package Pollution
Although we still see fresh vegetables and fruits sold in plastic bags in supermarkets. But when you buy ultra-processed foods, they always come in a single-use package. And the package is mostly plastic. Imagine how many single-use packages we can easily eliminate if we don’t eat “junk food”. Remember, ultra-processed foods, which contain additional sugar (or artificial sweeteners) and no fiber, compromise your health. Therefore, we really need to question the existence of junk food.
The biggest causes of deforestation are cattle and soya production that feeds farmed animals followed by illegal logging, mining, and urbanization. You may think trees are cut for paper and furniture or building houses. But the real reason is for increasing meat production. Remember, your diet should be mostly plants to keep your body happy. But the trend is going in the opposite direction.
Another big discussion is about palm oil. Palm oil has been linked to the deforestation problem because a large rainforest area has been cleared for growing oil palm. The demand for palm oil is expected to increase and the industry is worried that we cannot produce enough palm oil within the existing plantation. However, about 65% of palm oil production is used for food, particularly junk food such as frozen pizza, cookies, chocolate, chips, and cakes. If we stop eating junk food, we could easily reduce the need for palm oil.
Food and Water Insecurity
Water is essential for all lives. Especially as the climate is changing, many places are experiencing draughts. About half of the global population doesn’t have access to clean water. In this situation, bottled water and sugary drinks should be discussed seriously. Because…
- More than 17 million barrels of oil are needed to produce enough plastic bottles just for the US.
- Groundwater is extracted from the areas, which are already battling water shortages, for bottled drinks to sell
- Sugary drinks, even Zero-Sugar versions, are the worst of the worst for your health
Coca-Cola alone sells more than 1.9 billion servings of drinks in more than 200 countries every day. Coca-Cola has improved water efficiency, but it still uses 1.7 liters of water to make 1 liter of product.
Last 50 years, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic disease rates are going up and ultra-processed food rates are still going up in western countries. We could say that we are in food crises rather than are in environmental or health crises. Because we’ve lost an idea of what good food is and consuming so much highly processed food. Manufacturers and brands of ultra-processed foods emphasize calories, fats, salt, and other individual pieces of information but mostly ignore the quality and what it does to your body. Even though eating ultra-processed foods became so normal, it should be very alarming to all of us. We need to realize that we’ve moved so far away from what is good for us.
The modern food environments are the heart of pretty much every single chronic disease that afflicts families, overwhelming healthcare systems, causing disability, and reduction in the quality of life. We should listen to our bodies, understand the importance of real foods, and enjoy food rather than feeling guilty about eating.
Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25231862/
The Impact of Artificial Sweeteners on Body Weight Control and Glucose Homeostasis - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2020.598340/full
The Truth About Supplements - https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2020/february/the-truth-about-supplements
Global Food Waste in 2022 - https://greenly.earth/en-us/blog/ecology-news/global-food-waste-in-2022
We’re on track to set a new record for global meat consumption - https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/04/26/1023636/sustainable-meat-livestock-production-climate-change/
Palm Oil Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report - https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/palm-oil-market
The fight to stop Nestle from taking America’s water to sell in plastic bottles - https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/29/the-fight-over-water-how-nestle-dries-up-us-creeks-to-sell-water-in-plastic-bottles