Are our diets costing the Earth?

18 March 2019

This week two events happened that made consider again the impact our diets are having on our planet.

Firstly, we saw thousands of our children take to the streets again, striking for climate action, and then the following evening I was at my daughter - Milli’s school, meeting with all her teachers to discuss what her GCSE options will be.  Her Geography teacher was so compelling about his subject matter, I more or less had to sit on my hands to stop myself throwing up my right hand yelling “pick me, pick me Sir”. He passionately explained to Milli that there has never been such a key period for a generation to be studying Geography. The curriculum covers topics such as:

  • What are the threats to forest biomes and how can they be reduced?
  • How can the growing demand for energy be met without serious environmental consequences?

It’s simply so relevant to this rapidly changing landscape.

Marco Springmann, an environmental sustainability and public health expert at the University of Oxford led a research team showing that in 2010, the world food system emitted roughly 5.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, occupied 12.6 million square kilometres of cropland (an area larger than America), used 1,810 cubic kilometres of freshwater and applied 104 teragrams of nitrogen (that’s more than 300,000 Boeing 747 airplanes) and 18 teragrams of phosphorus fertilisers - OMG!!!!

The global food system itself spurs climate change, alters landscapes and drives resource shortages. And as population growth puts more and more pressure on resources, where does this leave my daughter and her peers, I can’t help but ask myself?

The team at Oxford University (Marco Springmann et al) identified the way we need to be eating to avert disaster is a “Planetary Diet” model: where most meals are plant-based, with red meat only eaten once a week, must become the norm. If everyone did that, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would be reduced by more than half. Additionally, they report we must address food waste and restrict fertiliser use to prevent “runoff” polluting our waterways and oceans.

Canada Food Guide

In January, Canada published their new food guide. The 62-page document is a drastic change from food guides of the past, and the UK’s current “Eat Well” plate. It urges Canadians to adopt a mostly plant-based diet, to drink water instead of milk, and to worry less about daily servings of nutrients and specific portion sizes and more about cooking meals at home and eating with family and friends - hurray!!!!!!

The food guide is divided into four sections.

The first focuses on nutritious foods and what comprises a healthy diet. This is where the emphasis on proportion, rather than portion, is most evident. The guide contains an image (above) of a dinner plate half-covered in vegetables, with quarter-sized servings of protein foods (nuts, chickpeas, tofu, beef, salmon) and mixed whole grains (toast, wild rice, quinoa).

There is evidence supporting a lesser environmental impact of patterns of eating higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods. The potential benefits include helping to conserve soil, water and air”.

The second part of the guide addresses foods that should be minimised or avoided describing the types of foods and beverages that can have a negative impact on health when consumed on a regular basis.

Section three, is pure genius - highlighting the importance of food skills as a practical way to support healthy eating, basically how we eat. They encourage cooking from scratch more often and eating out less. Parents are encouraged to transfer food skills to their children by example AND the guide advises a mindful eating approach to eating,  food marketing and an effort to reduce waste!

“Eating with others can bring enjoyment to healthy eating and can foster connections between generations and cultures. Healthy eating is about more than just eating certain types and amounts of food. In all cultures, food is an integral part of social interactions and celebrations. Eating together can help to reinforce positive eating habits. This is especially true for children, who learn from behaviour modelled by parents and caregivers. Eating together may also encourage children and adolescents to take part in cooking and food preparation. Preparing and eating food in the company of others is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about food and share food cultures”.  - Amen to that!

The fourth and final section talks about implementation and how to make healthy eating accessible and available to all Canadians.

This guide has the potential to make a real difference. Its emphasis on less energy-intensive foods and minimising waste could improve the environmental impact of Canadians' diets. If workplaces, cafeterias, hospitals, and other public institutions adopted the recommendations we could see an improvement in public health. If schools incorporated more cooking classes and discussed mindfulness into their curricula, we'd see children learning how to nourish themselves mentally and physically.

This guide is a trailblazer - The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP PLEASE take note.

And so, to close this week I wanted to share with you my overarching principles I share with my 1:1 clients. These are guiding principles, but each client will have unique nuances where I overlay additional advice, for example I may take out histamine foods for one client or lower FODMAP foods for another.

Guiding Principles

Your meals should be comprised of:

  • 70% of your diet and plate should be plant-based
  • 20% quality protein from nuts, seeds, pulses oily fish like salmon, red meat (1 x a week only), eggs, seafood
  • 10% healthy fats/oils and condiments like ferments
  • I always recommend grass-fed meat, organic poultry, cheese yoghurt and eggs and wild line caught salmon or tuna as applicable to your bespoke plan
  • Choose seasonal fruits and veggies from local or at least UK providers - rather than foods that have clocked up 1000’s of air miles
  • Drink at least 1 litre of water a day – herbal teas count
  • Avoid processed or refined foods
    • As a general rule, if it comes in a bag or a box with over 6 ingredients, put it back on the shelf

    • This also includes highly processed ‘health foods’  like gluten-free alternatives, energy bars and also fruit bars

    • Try to use local butchers, greengrocers or markets and stop buying produce from supermarkets surrounded by unnecessary packaging

  • Aim to leave gaps between meals and not snacking, to give your digestive system a rest. 4 hours is ideal, and have a 12 hour fast overnight i.e finish eating at 7.30pm and don’t break your fast until 8.00am the following morning or longer.

  • Take time over your meals - engage with your food and chew, aim for 20 chews per mouthful.

In health, Tanya x