Meredith Pickett changed her family’s diet to improve their health, and cut her family’s carbon footprint in the process. She began using homemade cleaning products, eliminated items with artificial fragrance and switched to buying organic foods and practicing organic lawn care and gardening. Her and her three children’s asthma lifted; she went into remission for her ulcerative colitis and estimates the family is saving $300 a month by no longer needing most of the medications they were taking. “It’s amazing how much better you feel, just all around, and there are far fewer trips to the doctor,” says the Canton mother of three.
Whether people make choices driven by a concern for the Earth or their health, steps good for one often help the other. Agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions globally, and greenhouse gas emissions drive rapid climate change. The animal-based food industry generally produces more greenhouse gas emissions than producing plant-based foods, with dairy and red meat causing an outsize impact, reports the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Worldwide, it takes an average of 15,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, according to
waterfootprint.org. Reducing or eliminating red meat from one’s diet lowers the risk of cancer and heart disease, research shows. For example, getting protein from peanuts reduces risk of heart attack by 19 percent, according to the Harvard University report. Meanwhile, growing 1 cup of shelled peanuts consumes a global average of 349 gallons of water.
“It’s healthier for people and the planet to eat a plant-based diet,” says Paul Anastas, professor in the practice of chemistry for the environment at the Yale School of the Environment. By adopting a plant-based diet, people lower their risk of chronic disease and improve their immune system, says Lauren Timmerman, registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Norwalk Hospital. If 75 percent of your diet comes from fruits and vegetables, “you’re maximizing your intake of antioxidants and fibers,” she says.
The Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation for a balanced diet suggests people get nutrients from food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Nothing says the protein needs to come from animals, Anastas says, and people can get high-quality protein from plant-based foods such as seeds and nuts, beans, legumes like chickpeas and peas, and grains like quinoa, rice and oats.
Regardless of diet, he recommends eating foods grown locally. “Eating local” not only supports local farmers, he says; “the food is fresher, which is good for your health; the food has fewer preservatives and it doesn’t undergo the huge transportation distances, thereby reducing large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.”
When fresh fruits and vegetables age, many of the nutrients oxidize and some nutrients are lost, he says. Ideally, for maximum nutritional value and minimal carbon footprint, people would buy locally grown produce when it’s in season, he says.
Another environmental benefit to pursuing a healthier lifestyle: fewer medications. “The manufacturing and distribution of medications is extremely polluting,” Anastas says. When medications are manufactured, he adds, 99.9 percent leaves the manufacturing plant as waste, and 0.1 percent comes out as a drug.
When people say organic food is too expensive, Pickett says, “if you stick to the whole foods, it’s not that bad, especially when you consider the lessening of medications and trips to the doctor.” She borrowed a popular expression, “You can pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later.”
Here are some other choices that help our health and planet:
Buy or grow vegetables, fruits and herbs and cook from scratch. The more packaged and prepared the food, the bigger the carbon footprint and the less healthful it is.
Make your own baby food with fresh produce and whole grains. By the time a child fed commercial baby food reaches the age of 1, they’ll have generated 600 jars, says Heather Pease, nutrition outreach education, UConn Extension. Manufacturers use older produce, water and thickeners, she says, and manufacturing and transportation contribute to carbon-dioxide emissions. Also, a U.S. House Oversight Committee in February reported finding “dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury” in commercial baby food.
When possible, choose organically grown produce because it’s kinder to insects and soil and safer for people, Pease says. Produce with soft skins is more likely to absorb more of the pesticides, so, if living within a budget, focus on the “dirty dozen,” including strawberries, spinach and kale.
Use Earth-friendly cleaning products such as baking soda, white vinegar and borax for laundry and cleaning. Borax can be used to kill ants and as a water softener. White vinegar, added to the fabric softener slot, softens and deodorizes laundry. Baking soda or borax can be combined with white vinegar to clean toilet bowls — without harmful fumes or adding harsh chemicals to septic or waste-water systems.
Think about the cleansing and beauty products you apply to your skin and hair, Anastas says. “Well over 250 synthetic chemicals only invented over the last 50 years are in our bodies,” he says. After they’re rinsed off, they go down the drain and, eventually, into the environment.
Open your windows to fresh air. “When people talk about air pollution, they don’t realize indoor air pollution is far more impactful to health than outdoor air,” he says. It’s also carbon-free.