First there was the USDA food pyramid, a helpful visual guide to healthier eating. Five years ago, the pyramid turned into a plate. Now there are rumors the plate may soon feature a diet that boosts the environment, too. But what exactly does our dinner look like when we eat with more than ourselves in mind?
Every five years, the federal government reviews the latest nutritional science and updates its official dietary guidelines, which not only influence consumers but affect federal food programs, school lunch requirements, and more. Usually the changes, if any, amount to tinkering with the food group ratios science says we should eat for optimal wellbeing. But in December, an advisory panel working on the new 2015 guidelines declared that a sustainable diet is not only an important part of ensuring that everyone has enough to eat now and in the future but is "more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet.”
That seems to suggest a big philosophical shift in the USDA’s “My Plate” program. But how much would the USDA recommendations themselves change if they actually went green? Not much because it turns out that the diet that’s best for us is also best for the Earth. Here’s what that means:
More plants, fewer animal products. It’s the most important change we can make because producing animal-based foods takes a disproportionate toll on the environment. A 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that calorie for calorie, beef consumes 28 times more land and 11 times more water than dairy, pork, poultry, and eggs, while producing five times more greenhouse gas emissions. Dairy, pork, poultry, and eggs are more sustainable but perform two to six times worse in these areas than staples like wheat, rice, or potatoes. That’s why diets that treat meat and dairy like occasional side dishes are best for the Earth.
More organic foods, less conventionally-grown produce. This one’s a no-brainer—foods produced without pesticides don’t pollute our soil, water, air, or bodies with toxic chemicals. Period.
More local foods, fewer long-distance dinners. You may have heard the term “food miles,” which refers to how far our food travels to get from the field to our families. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, that’s 1,019 miles for the average food item. The farther it goes, the more pollution is created and the less healthy for us all it becomes. (Even if it’s broccoli!)
More foods in season, fewer that aren’t. Eating foods out of season means they’ve probably traveled even further than average to get to us or have been stored in climate-controlled warehouses. Neither is best for the planet. In-season foods, however, are fresh from the farm and likely grown closer to home.
More whole foods, less processed foods. Whole foods have two eco-advantages: they typically use much less packaging and are generally additive-free. So they create less waste and require less energy to produce. Plus there’s that no-additive bonus, but you know… who’s counting?
It’s highly doubtful that new USDA diet recommendations will put all of these “rules” on it’s official My Plate. And indeed, whispers that the recipe for its recommendations might soon include a side of sustainability already have the beef industry and other special interests trying to stick a fork in the idea. The good news is that now you know! And each of us can turn the knowledge that our diets also affect our health through their environmental impacts into healthier habits for our families and our world.