The University Network

Are Your Favorite Foods Bad For The Environment?

Ever wonder how your favorite foods impact the environment? Here’s a general rule of thumb: if it’s bad for you, it’s likely bad for the environment too. 

That’s the finding of a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota (UMN). Their study marks the very first time researchers have tied the health impacts of foods to their overall environmental impact. 

“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,” David Tilman, lead author of the study and professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the UMN College of Biological Sciences, said in a statement

To conduct the study, the researchers evaluated 15 different food groups, including fruits, nuts, fish, red meat, dairy, eggs and sugary drinks, and ranked them based on how likely they are to cause disease in humans and negatively impact the environment in terms of water and land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and soil pollution. 

The foods topping the list as the worst for both the environment and for personal health are — you guessed it — red meat like pork, beef, mutton and goat, both processed and unprocessed. 

On the other hand, some of the foods that are best for the environment and personal health include vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grain cereals and olive oil. 

“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,” Tilman continued. 

There are some outliers, however. 

The two most notable exceptions are fish, which is typically healthy but has a moderate environmental impact, and sugary beverages like soda, which aren’t healthy but don’t have a huge impact on the environment. 

The findings from this study are in line with a recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommending a switch to a plant-based diet to help mitigate climate change. 

“This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment,” Jason Hill, co-author of the study and bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor at the UMN’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, said in a statement. 

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

For some, however, adjusting their diets is easier said than done. A high percentage of college students, for example, rely on university dining halls for their meals. And generally, they only have a few options to pick from. 

There are some colleges and universities, though, that are making a conscious effort to change this. Instead of having three or four meat options and a salad bar — as dining halls typically do — these schools’ dining halls are offering creative, delicious dishes with smaller carbon footprints. 

Harvard University, the University of Maryland (UMD) and the University of Pittsburgh have gone as far as to join the Cool Food Pledge, an initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI) to put more climate-friendly foods on the menus of cafeterias and dining halls at schools, hospitals, companies and more, all around the world. 

Through the Cool Food Pledge, WRI intends to slash food-related emissions by 25 percent by 2030. Currently, food production is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

But there is a growing demand for healthy, environmentally friendly meals around the world. In the United States alone, nearly 40 percent of people say they want to eat more plant-based foods. 

And since UMD signed onto the Cool Food Pledge, students have embraced their new dining options. 

“When I first started, you wouldn’t think that students would want to be eating things like quinoa and farro,” Allison Tjaden, UMD Dining Services’ assistant director of new initiatives, told The Diamondback. “But this is the stuff that students want to eat.”