Surprise, surprise: food that’s good for the planet is good for us, too

Illustration for article titled Surprise, surprise: food that’s good for the planet is good for us, too
Photo: Stewart Watson (iStock)

Calling the Earth our mother didn’t get us to start treating it any better. (You don’t write, you don’t call, you don’t stop with the car exhaust...) But a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that maybe we should start thinking about environmental responsibility this way: What’s good for the planet is also good for our bodies, so everyone wins!


The study, performed by researchers at the University of Minnesota and Oxford University, examined the environmental and health outcomes associated with 15 separate groups of food; these included water and land usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and water and soil pollution, and, for humans, risk of disease. For data, they used 19 separate meta-analyses that, NPR reports, followed millions of people over time. “We find,” the scientists wrote, “that foods associated with improved adult health also often have low environmental impacts.”

Take, for instance, almonds (as NPR did). Almonds are linked to lower instances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So: good for us! They also require a lot of water, and California, where most of them are grown, is suffering from a drought; overall, a serving of almonds has five times the environmental impact of a serving of vegetables. This is not so good. However, almonds are still better for the planet than red meat, which has 40 times the environmental impact of a serving of vegetables. Everything is relative. “If water is going to be used to irrigate crops,” David Tilman, an ecologist who worked on the study, explained to NPR, “it would seem better for it to be used to grow healthy crops.”

There are a few exceptions. Sugary beverages are terrible for us, but their environmental impact isn’t that much worse than vegetables. And fish, while a responsible choice for the human body, can be terrible for the planet, depending on where we get it from.

But overall, a pretty good rule of thumb seems to be that what’s good for Mother Earth is good for us, and vice versa.

Associate editor of The Takeout. Chicagoan. Owned by dog.



A tenuous correlation at best. From your own examples, it doesn’t hold true broadly.

The impact of meat is largely measured against commercial cattle production. Yet, if a farm raises animals, uses the feces for fertilizer and rotates crop fields with grazing fields, you suddenly have ecological balance. (Lamb and goat should be much more popular in the US then it currently is.) 

Over fishing is a serious problem. Yet, aquaculture farming in open water can help restore wild populations while providing other benefits to the environment, like all that fish poop supporting the bottom of the ocean food chain. Or large scale farming of filter feeders like muscles and clams helping clean the ocean water.

There are methods for ecologically growing all our food, if we are willing to invest in it.  Remember when Organic veggies cost twice as much as traditionally grown?  Now they’re largely the same price.  The investment pays off in the long run.