Folks have different opinions about what constitutes a healthy diet, and what constitutes an environmentally friendly diet. Science has an idea, but are consumers up to date with the science? A new study says no. There is a science–beliefs gap. Messages claiming health or environmental benefits can be confusing. These messages come from all sides, advertisements, friends, news, even government recommendations.
Researchers surveyed 420 people online, most located in Germany. They asked thirteen questions about what respondents thought constituted healthy diets, how sustainable the healthy diets were, what constituted sustainable diets, and demographic information. The main dietary items addressed were red meat, fish, organic food, and local food.
The big winner was a reduction in red meat consumption. Red meat consumption has negative health effects and negative environmental effects. Most people know this and many are starting to reduce their red meat consumption.
Fish consumption is correlated with health benefits, providing many macro-nutrients. However, sustainable seafood is very difficult to find. A third of fish stocks globally are already over-fished, and another third are at maximum capacity. Fish farms are popping up everywhere to supplement wild-caught fish, and we still are not reaching the recommended levels of fish consumption for a healthy diet. We’re decimating the environment trying to keep up with the demand. While fish farms have lots of potential problems and effects on the environment, we will need them to avoid completely emptying our oceans.
Organic food is not as environmentally friendly as most people believe. Though it could potentially have slightly improved nutrition, it is not statistically significant nor is it the scientific consensus that it is any better than conventionally grown food for you. Food grown organically is a far less efficient use of land and water for an equal amount of equivalent food grown traditionally. This actually makes it worse for the environment overall than traditional methods, while having no positive or negative effect on human health.
Local foods are perceived as more environmentally friendly, but looks can be deceiving. The origin of food is thought to have more to do with environmental impact, but the real damage comes from the mode of transportation. For example, asparagus is often flown into American markets from afar, usually Peru or Mexico, because of its short shelf life. Hardier crops that are grown in the same areas, like potatoes or blueberries can arrive by truck or boat over a longer period of time. Flying freight produces so much more carbon than trucking and shipping do. If purchasing local food, keep seasonality in mind, as greenhouse-grown food can have a considerable carbon footprint to keep conditions optimal for plants.
While no diet is perfect, and there will always be trade-offs for human health, price, climate change, local economies, distant impoverished economies, wildlife, and many other things, do your best to make informed decisions based on your own priorities and motivations.