Eat for human and planetary health

Author: Donna Mitchell

Donna Mitchell is a Toronto-based communications professional with a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell who enjoys spending time on Georgian Bay.

Choosing to eat more plants and less meat, and to waste less food, is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint while also improving personal health.

Consider the facts

  • Livestock farming accounts for a whopping 14.5% of global greenhouse gases, 30% of the earth’s land surface and one-third of freshwater use.
  • Three billion people suffer from hunger or from eating too much of the wrong foods, especially red meat, sugar, sodium and refined foods.
  • Up to one-third of food produced globally goes to waste. In Canada, about 60% of food that is thrown away could have been eaten, costing the average household more than $1,100 a year.1

Optimal diet for people and the planet

  • The EAT-Lancet commission recently launched the “planetary health diet,” created by scientists from 16 countries as the optimal diet to improve human health and combat climate change. Cutting food waste is also a key component.
  • Flexitarian and mostly plant-based, the diet favours whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes but provides the option for modest amounts of animal products. Based on a 2,500-calorie diet, for example, on a weekly basis it roughly allows for up to one serving of red meat, two each of fish and chicken and 1-2 eggs per week, and no more than a daily serving of dairy.
  • The goal for 2050 is to cut intake of unhealthy foods like red meat and sugar by at least 50% and to double consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, while also reducing food waste by half.

Benefits of planetary health diet

  • For the planet, adopting the diet and avoiding food waste could cut greenhouse gases from the food we eat by more than 60%, as well as significantly improve the health of our water systems, forests, soils, coral reefs and wildlife.
  • For people, it reduces risk of life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers – with potential to lose weight, boost energy and save money!

Tips for making healthier, more sustainable food choices

  • Aim to eat smaller amounts of animal products and highly processed foods (refined grains, added sugars, sodium). Increase whole grains (rice, wheat and corn), fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes (beans, peas, lentils and peanuts). Swap in healthier plant-based oils like olive oil for animal fats. Give plant-based milks a try, keeping in mind individual needs for protein and calcium.
  • To ease the transition, try gradually shifting portions from animal-based foods to plants until vegetables, fruits and nuts make up half the plate. Or incorporate meat-free meals or meat-free days or something in between (vegan until 6 p.m., perhaps?).
  • Plan menus for the week to ensure meals are varied, balanced and delicious. Check the fridge first to build meals around perishables. Introduce one or two new recipes a week, or adapt favourites to make them plant-centred (chili “non” carne).
  • Try high-protein meat alternatives such as beans, soy, lentils and nuts. Have a container of ready-to-eat beans in the fridge and a big jar of nuts and seeds to add to salads, pastas or stir-fries. Keep some tofu and edamame in the freezer. Use cooked lentils, tempeh or even walnuts as a substitute for ground meat.

Tips for managing food waste at home

  • Make and stick to a grocery list. Shop more frequently for smaller amounts of fresh food, using up perishables before getting more. Select foods with less packaging and take advantage of bulk food stores, which may allow you to bring your own reusable containers to be weighed before filling.
  • Purchase only amounts you will realistically use or freeze, even if larger amounts are available at bargain prices (unless you can share them). Store and label food containers so you always know what you have.
  • Make it a practice to place new groceries in the back of the fridge and pantry, and move older ones forward to ensure first in, first out (FIFO). Keep fridge, freezer and pantry free of clutter for better visibility and easier rotation. Eat perishables earlier in the week and rely on cupboard or freezer food for later in the week. https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/keep-it-fresh/fridge-guide/ and and https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/keep-it-fresh/freezer-guide/
  • Learn how to properly store fresh produce (e.g., room temperature vs. fridge, and separating those that emit ethylene as part of the ripening process). https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Cooking-Food-Preparation/How-to-store-vegetables-to-keep-them-fresh.aspx
  • Adjust your crisper drawers to advantage (low humidity for ethylene produce like bananas, kiwis and pears; higher humidity for produce that is ethylene-sensitive, like lettuce) https://www.rd.com/food/fun/refrigerator-crisper-drawer/
  • Serve smaller portions or let diners serve themselves. Freeze or keep leftovers for lunch or enjoy a lazy leftovers dinner. Make creative use of vegetable scraps and wilting produce: soup, smoothies, pesto, flavoured water or frittatas. Try your hand at preserving or canning fresh produce.
  • Understand the expiration terms used by manufacturers. “Expiration date” is generally based on food safety. “Use by” and “best before” are based on peak quality and freshness of food, which often may be safely eaten after the date. Discarding food based solely on these dates is a big contributor to food waste. Focus on safe preparation and handling of food and trust your senses instead. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/general-food-safety-tips/how-read-food-date-labels-packaging.html
  • If your community doesn’t have a green bin system, try alternative composting methods, potentially indoors. https://www.cottagetips.com/tips/composting-tips/
  • For 10 easy tips on managing food waste and planning meals, including recipes for leftover or wilted ingredients, visit: https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/

References:

  • 1 In 2017 the National Zero Waste Council conducted research on household food waste in Canada, and the results were astonishing. 63% of the food Canadians throw away could have been eaten. For the average Canadian household that amounts to 140 kilograms of wasted food per year – at a cost of more than $1,100 per year!" https://lovefoodhatewaste.ca/about/food-waste/
  • *Note: this link was changed on April 18th, 2020 from https://harvestontario.com/whatinseason to https://www.ontario.ca/foodland/page/availability-guide by Heather Sargeant, because the original link was broken (stopped functioning).