Everyone’s heard the cliché “you are what you eat.” And, it’s true – your health is intimately connected to the foods and drinks you put in your mouth. But, have you ever stopped to consider what other impacts your food choices may have? Industrial farming practices can cause soil and water pollution. Over-packaged, single-size foods result in litter and plastic waste that will linger in landfills for hundreds of years. The average American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to fork increasing air pollution and greenhouse gases. Human health is affected by what we eat, but planetary health is affected by how we eat.
Luckily, we don’t have to sacrifice either health or the environment. And, you might even find that when you start considering both and making smarter choices, your foods are more flavorful and cooking is more enjoyable. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Start simple by trying the easy (and affordable) tips below.
1. Eat a healthier snack like a USDA Certified organic apple. Organic certification guarantees that the product has been grown, handled and processed without synthetic pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, artificial ingredients, preservatives and without using genetic modification or irradiation. Organic certification also means the farmer is promoting biological diversity by rotating crops, conserving and renewing the soil, and protecting water sources.
Organic foods are the best investment you can make for your health, but they can cost quite a bit more. According to the Environmental Working Group, you can lower your pesticide exposure by 90 per cent simply by avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown produce: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. If you’re really craving one of these foods, opt for organic. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the lowest levels of pesticide residue include: onion, avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomato, and sweet potato. You can download the EWG pocket guide that lists these and the dirty dozen from Foodnews.org.
2. Ease up on animal fats. Meat and dairy products are major sources of saturated fat in the U.S. diet, and contribute to higher risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Animal products can also contain hormones, antibiotics and organochlorine chemicals, such as dioxin, DDT and other pesticides, which concentrate in animal fat. Modern meat production also consumes water, energy and land. Animal waste produces air and water pollution. And red meat production creates about 3.5 times more greenhouse gases than that of grains.
When you do buy meat, poultry or dairy, look for low fat options (get the unsaturated fats your body needs from plant sources like walnuts, flax seeds, and avocados). You can also do a favor for your body and the planet by reducing how much meat you eat. Making even one vegetarian meal a week can make a big difference.
3. Ban the can. Canned foods and beverages are lined with a resin that contains bisphenol-A, a hormone-disrupting chemical that’s building up in our environment and our bodies. Most manufacturers are beginning to explore safer alternatives, but in the meantime you should choose foods that are fresh, dried or frozen or packaged in glass jars or tetra packs.
4. Select safer seafood. Eating seafood is the primary way we are exposed to methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin. Fish can also be contaminated with PCBs, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency have declared a probable carcinogen. In addition, many commercial fishing practices damage the aquatic ecosystems by depleting fish stocks to dangerous levels. Worldwide about 90% of large predatory fish stocks are already gone. Use the Environmental Defense Fund’s Safe Seafood Selector to find species that are lowest in chemical and heavy metal contamination, and that are fished in ways that are not harmful to our oceans.
5. Bulk up. It’s common knowledge that buying in bulk saves money, but it also reduces waste because there’s so much less packaging. In addition, bulk foods are often less processed so you reduce your exposure to questionable food additives. Bulk cook staples like beans and other legumes and store them in your freezer in serving sizes that are appropriate for your family size.
6. Turn on your tap. Plastic bottled water is over-priced, over packaged, and not necessarily cleaner than tap. In fact, municipal tap water is more regulated than bottled water and some bottled water is just tap water with a clever name. It’s a waste of your money that creates enormous amounts of waste. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council,
“In 2006, the equivalent of 2 billion half-liter bottles of water were shipped to U.S. ports, creating thousands of tons of global warming pollution and other air pollution. And while the bottles come from far away, most of them end up close to home – in a landfill. Most bottled water comes in recyclable PET plastic bottles, but only about 13 percent of the bottles we use get recycled. In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic water bottles ended up clogging landfills instead of getting recycled.”
Make an investment in a water filter and reusable stainless steel water bottles. They quickly pay for themselves. While you’re at it, skip the soda and other bottled drinks. Water’s much better for you.
7. Purge plastic. Okay, it’s almost impossible to eliminate plastic – and sometimes there’s no better choice. Still, plastics are clogging our landfills, polluting our Oceans (check out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 100 million tons of debris that’s essentially made a trash island in the ocean), and being petroleum-based products, they create a lot of pollution when they’re manufactured. In regards to human health, studies are piling up showing how chemicals leach from many plastics and end up in our food and drinks. For your food, glass is the safest bet and extremely affordable. Most second-hand stores have loads of glassware and old spaghetti or canning jars are super for storing leftovers. If you do use plastic, opt for safer ones like those with the number 2, 4, or 5 in the chasing arrows symbol (usually found on the bottom). Never heat food in plastic as it increases chemical leaching.
8. Read a food label – for real. Ever stop to read the ingredients label on packaged, processed foods? It’s usually a mouthful of words most of us have a hard time pronouncing, so what exactly are you eating? You can learn which food additives are safe and which are not by visiting The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food safety guide, but it’s even easier to simply choose whole foods. Whole foods are not processed, so they have all their natural nutritional gifts – and less processing means less pollution. Look for foods made from whole grains (think whole wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice) – and it should say “whole” on the label. Make more foods from scratch (it’s easier than you think). You’ll end up saving money, eating healthier and reducing all the waste created from packaging and processing foods.
9. Look for local. The average mouthful of food travels 1,400 miles from the farm to our plates. Food from local farms is fresher and closer to ripeness, has used less energy for transport and is less likely to have been treated with post-harvest pesticides. Buying local products also supports regional farmers and preserves farmland. Ask for local produce, meat and dairy at your market and see what they show you. Better yet, visit your local farmer’s market. You’ll be supporting your community, saving money, protecting the planet, and eating healthier. Visit EatWellGuide.org to discover your local food system.
10. Savor your flavors! When was the last time you really experienced your food? Really took some time to appreciate what you’re eating? From the crisp juiciness of a fresh apple to the creamy, cool sweetness of a spoonful of ice cream, are you really tasting what you put in your mouth or are you thoughtlessly inhaling? We’ve become so accustomed to fast food (whether at home or at the drive-thru), we’ve nearly lost the ability to appreciate our culinary bounty. When we eat without thinking, we’re more apt to choose foods that are less healthy (for us and the Earth) and to overeat whatever we’ve slopped onto our plate (if it even made it on to a dish). Take a moment to savor the flavor, to think about where your food came from, and to feel a little gratitude.