“Our study demonstrates that the Eatwell Guide forms an effective first step towards more healthy and sustainable diets in the UK,” says Pauline Scheelbeek, PhD, lead study author and assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in a press release. “Further adherence to the guidelines would not only result in population health benefits but is also associated with lower environmental footprint due to reduced greenhouse gas emission.”
The Eatwell Guide, published in 2016, says one-third of your diet should be fruits and vegetables, one-third of your diet with starchy foods like grains, and the rest is smaller amounts dairy or dairy alternatives, protein like meat or beans, unsaturated fats like olive oil and have in small amounts, and very small amounts of foods high in fat, salt, and sugar.
Published Wednesday in The BMJ, the new research examined data collected from over 500,000 people and found that those who followed the Eatwell Guide saw an estimated 7 percent reduction in mortality and a 30 percent reduction in food-related emissions. However, the Eatwell Guide does not specifically target the environmental sustainability of diets.
“We, therefore, need to investigate ways to further reduce environmental footprints of our diets in ways that would be culturally acceptable and could be implemented by the UK population, both from a consumption and a production side, without compromising population health,” says Dr. Scheelbeek
Globally, food systems are responsible for 21 to 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of freshwater withdrawal, the study says. In the U.S., 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector.
The Eatwell Guide, explained
Fruits and Vegetables
You should aim to eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables every day, the guide says, averaging out to a third of your diet. Similar to the planetary health diet, the Eatwell Guide’s focus on fruits and veggies makes it more sustainable.
“While [fruits and vegetables] require more water than legumes and starches, they can grow really quickly, which is what makes them sustainable,” says registered dietitian and The Plant-Powered Dietitian blogger Sharon Palmer, RD. And buying locally grown fruits and vegetables can help to keep your footprint even smaller.
Researchers found that adherence to this recommendation was independently associated with the largest reduction in total mortality risk: a reduction of 10 percent.
Here’s when to buy organic produce:
Another third of your diet should be composed of starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, rice, and pasta. The NHS says that starchy foods are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients like fiber, calcium, iron, and B vitamins.
On an environmental front, they have a pretty small footprint.
“These foods are very easy to grow because they don’t require rich soil or much rain,” says Palmer. “Because of this, they are easily grown all over the world, including in the States, which means they often don’t require being imported from far away.”
Dairy and dairy alternatives
Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt, are great sources of calcium in your diet. The NHS recommends opting for lower fat and lower sugar options like 1 percent milk, reduced-fat cheese, or plain low-fat yogurt.
But dairy alternatives are welcome, especially if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Here’s how to find the right milk or alt-milk for you:
Protein also isn’t a huge factor in Eatwell Guide. It’s recommend that you get yours from foods like beans, pulses, fish, eggs, and meat. When it comes to health benefits, researchers found the biggest health outcomes were associated with eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, not cutting down on meat. But if two-thirds of your diet consists of fruits, vegetables, and starchy carbohydrates, that may not leave room for as much meat as you typically eat.
The environmental impact of cutting down on meat, however, is significant. The study says that in the UK, the greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters was found to be roughly double that of vegans.
The smallest sliver on the chart was given to unsaturated fats like vegetable, rapeseed, olive, and sunflower oils. Although these oils have health benefits, you shouldn’t consume too much of them at a time.
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