There are so many experts trying to sell you the latest, often bizarre diets and detoxes you can imagine. Research on nutrition is ongoing and there is still no definitive answer on what is 100% best. But even with a vibrant nutrition industry, we’re now in a time where obesity is at the highest level in history. Something clearly isn’t working. We need to look at a more sustainable diet, both for ourselves and the environment.
So how do you figure out what you should eat to stay healthy, maintain a healthy weight and look after the environment at the same time?
Before we answer those questions, let’s look at what might be causing the problem, putting a strain on our bodies, the food supply system and the environment as a whole.
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The Rise of Processed Foods
Through reviewing overall trends in food, a researcher at George Washington University found a clear correlation between the rise of processed foods and the rise of obesity in the US.
“When comparing the U.S. diet to the diet of those who live in “blue zones” — areas with populations living to age 100 without chronic disease — the differences are stark,” said Frame, assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Many of the food trends we reviewed are tied directly to a fast-paced U.S. lifestyle that contributes to the obesity epidemic we are now facing.” You can read the full article published ScienceDaily here.
Given the clear correlation between obesity, chronic diseases and processed food, eating very little or no processed food is a great start to living a healthier life. It will also help to reduce plastic waste as most processed foods are packaged in some form of a package, often plastic.
Processed foods are a very profitable industry that markets cheap, sugary foods to make money, but it’s created to be good for the bottom line and share prices of those companies not necessarily for your health or the planet. I don’t see how processed foods can form part of a sustainable lifestyle unless the industry completely changes its approach.
So What is the Healthiest Most Sustainable Diet you can Follow?
The answer to this question is so simple most people won’t believe it. It’s not a great scientific discovery that comes with a logo, bells, whistles and a weekly meeting, although weekly meetings are a great motivator, it’s plain and simple.
- Eat real food, i.e. things that your grandma will recognise
- Eat mostly plants
- Don’t eat too much
Those of you who have seen the documentary or have read the book by Michael Pollan, in Defence of Food, will know all of this already because he sums up the food philosophy I’ve lived by most of my life and am describing here very well. There really is no magic bullet sustainable diet that you can buy as a shake or in a bar or even any fancy packet that will solve weight, health and environmental issues in the long term.
Another great read on healthy and sustainable eating is Spoon-Fed by Tim Spector, a Professor of Genetics at King’s College London and Author. It’s filled with science and facts about how we eat and the food industry itself.
Other diets that follow a similar philosophy is the Blue Zone diet, Mediterranean diet and the Flexitarian diet.
For a Sustainable Diet. Eat Real Food
Homecooked meals from organic, seasonal and local ingredients are the best defence you have for people and the planet. I’m not saying that you can’t support a local restaurant now and again, but avoid processed foods bought in a supermarket at all cost. This includes things made out of white flour, wholemeal is better for your gut and waistline.
I remember as a child, my mom made most of our food from scratch, even our Monday night fish and chips were battered at home and never came out of a packet that contained anything other than fish. At the time I did think this was weird as my friends’ parents always had a cupboard full of processed foods and snacks to eat whenever I went to visit.
My parents are currently well into their 70s, both going strong! And today I’m grateful that my mother didn’t routinely buy sugary biscuits and snacks, she would bake them on occasion but it’s not something we’d have in the house all the time. As a result, I’ve never had a serious weight problem or liked sugary foods. Thanks, mom!
Also, avoid the new wave of meat-free options that are now parading around the shelves as healthy food. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are very nice and there are a few relatively healthy ones, but it’s still processed and will contain all kinds of unpronounceable preservatives and cheap ingredients. Just because it is tasty and don’t have meat in them doesn’t make it healthy or eco friendly.
Eat Mostly Plants, Especially Leaves
A recent study done by a team at Johns Hopkins University found that eating one portion of traditionally farmed meat a day has a lower carbon footprint than a vegetarian diet that includes dairy. This concept is known as a flexitarian diet. So when considering meals and sustainability, having mainly plants become more important.
We seem to have overall consensus in the scientific community that eating plants are a good idea as it’s rich in antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients. The jury is still out on meat, but we’re safe on the vegetable side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily advocating a vegetarian diet, just one that is mainly made up of plants. Meat and dairy can still have a place but should be seen as a treat as mass production is a very intensive farming process that is troublesome for the environment and your health.
Traditional diets were packed with things like Omega 3. Our bodies can’t produce Omega 3 so we need to eat foods that contain it. Omega 3 can traditionally be found in nuts, seeds, fish, eggs and meat. However, modern farming practices have altered the diet of livestock, drastically reducing Omega 3 in the food chain. In turn, the imbalance between Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in our current western diet can cause harm to our bodies including impairing brain development in children.
Animals, like us, should eat the diet nature intended for them. Cattle should eat grass, chickens should forage and eat a mix of green plants, seeds and insects not just corn laced with growth hormones. If the animals in our food chain don’t eat a natural sustainable diet it will impact everything higher up the chain as it’s all connected. So if you do eat meat, always go for high welfare practices where the animals eat what nature intended, outside where they are supposed to be. These meats are usually more expensive, so eating it as a treat will help to balance the cost and reduce environmental impact.
There is evidence that regenerative organic livestock farming, although still debated, is carbon negative so look for pasture-raised regenerative and organic producers.
Don’t Eat too Much
Easier said than done right? Well not really. If you eat a real whole food sustainable diet, your food takes longer to digest and you won’t be hungry all the time. Unless you’re a long-distance running or cycling enthusiast like me. I’ve made peace with the fact that hungry is my normal state as I tend to run out of things to eat during the day during peak training times.
Eating just enough is a great way to manage your environmental impact so if you struggle with overeating perhaps it will help to think about the strain it puts on the natural world. I know mental health can also play an important role in how much we eat as there are many people who struggle with emotional overeating, but once you start the habit it becomes easier.
A great tip is to make sure you sit down at a table, with other people for each meal. That means that you’re paying attention to what you’re doing and not just mindlessly eating away while sitting at your desk or in front of the telly – yes I’m guilty of this too! Having smaller plates also help to reduce portion size.
Portion control in our house is very important, especially when it comes to things like rice and pasta as it’s very starchy. I usually get the scale-out for those items to make sure I don’t cook too much as I can’t stomach throwing food away so will end up eating it all!
Please feel free to have a look at the homecooked recipes I’ve posted as these follow the guidelines above. Note that the recipes on our site are guides mainly and most ingredients can be substituted for another if you’d like to minimise food waste and cook with what you have already. There is no real need to make the recipes as is – if you’re unsure about substitutes just post your question in the comment section of the relevant recipe.