If you need yet another reason to improve your diet, scientists have discovered that a majority of healthy foods also have the lowest environmental impacts. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Oxford University recently published the results of this first-of-its-kind study in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Previous studies have evaluated the environmental impacts of dietary patterns, as well as the health or environmental impacts of individual foods. However, this study is the first to tie the health impacts of foods to their overall environmental impact. The research team aimed to help consumers, food corporations, and policymakers make better food choices while additionally meeting environmental sustainability targets.
The researchers examined how 15 different food groups are associated with five health outcomes and five environmental impacts. The 15 food groups examined were: chicken, dairy, eggs, fish, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, potatoes, processed red meat, unprocessed red meat, refined grain cereals, whole grain cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, and vegetables.
The five diet-dependent health outcomes examined were: type II diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and mortality. The environmental outcomes examined were: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, scarcity-weighted water use, acidification, eutrophication. The environmental outcome was quantified by the impact of producing a serving of each food group and does not include transport, processing, retail, and preparation.
Their analysis showed that almost all foods associated with improved health had the lowest environmental impacts, including whole-grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and olive oil. Foods associated with the largest increases in disease risks—red meats, both processed and unprocessed—were "consistently associated” with the most significant environmental impacts.
There were, of course, a couple of exceptions to this outcome. Sugar-sweetened beverages, which have high health risks, have lower environmental impacts. Fish, which is widely considered a healthy food group, has moderate environmental impacts. The team considers those foods with intermediate environmental and health outcomes—such as refined grain cereals, dairy, eggs, and chicken—as options for reduction to help meet international dietary and environmental targets.
In a news release from the University of Minnesota, Jason Hill, study author and College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences professor stated, “It’s important that all of us think about the health impacts of the foods we eat. We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth, as well.”