Here’s What It Truly Means to Follow a Sustainable Diet That’s Good for You *and* the Planet

Photo: Stocksy / Nadine Greeff
When it comes to choosing a healthy eating plan, there's a lot of questions someone may ask themselves. Does my body feel its best without animal products? Did our ancestors have it all figured out? Can I really live without cheese? But the most pressing question in 2019: is this truly a sustainable diet?

Indeed, there's a preponderance of evidence that all of us need to change our ways in order to curb the worst effects of climate change. Just Tuesday, the UN released a damning report saying that carbon emissions continue to increase globally, and seven of the world's biggest economies (including the US) are not doing their part to help. It doesn't help that 10 percent of American greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector—leading many healthy eaters to wonder how their food impacts the planet.

That's where the buzzy planetary health diet, or climate diet, comes in. Introduced by 37 doctors from 16 countries in the journal The Lancet earlier in the year, it offers up a researched-backed eating plan for how to eat healthy in a way that minimally impacts the planet and ensures that it will be habitable for future generations.

But given that the ground-breaking report is...incredibly long, we decided to get some practical intel on what a truly sustainable diet looks like from registered dietitian and The Plant-Powered Dietitian blogger Sharon Palmer, RD. She breaks down the planetary health diet so that you can build your plate every day with the environment in mind.

Half your plate: Fruits and vegetables

Frankly put, an eating plan void of fruits and vegetables just wouldn't be healthy. (So any that advocates otherwise is a major red flag.) Most importantly, they are typically rich in fiber, which is crucial for digestive health, healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and even skin health. They're also typically full of vitamins (which vary depending on what you choose) and anti-inflammatory antioxidants—making them crucial for longevity and overall health.

As for the planetary effects: "While [fruits and vegetables] require more water than legumes and starches, they can grow really quickly, which is what makes them sustainable," Palmer says. She recommends buying locally grown fruits and vegetables, if you have access to them, to keep the environmental footprint to a minimum.

The surprising staple: healthy carbohydrates

Carbohydrates make up roughly 30 percent of the climate diet outlined in the Lancet report. Eaters are recommended to fill their plates with foods like whole grains (like rice, quinoa, millet, and buckwheat) and potatoes. "These foods are very easy to grow because they don't require rich soil or much rain," Palmer says. "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," she says. Palmer also points out how inexpensive they are; starchy foods can often be bought in bulk and can be stored for a long time before they go bad.

While carbohydrates have recently obtained a bad reputation (thanks, keto), Palmer says that certain sources of starch like the ones mentioned above are full of nutrients. Whole grains in particular are rich in fiber. Lest you start hating on potatoes, they're a healthy win too: Besides fiber, they're a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and protein.

Speaking of potatoes, here's how an RD feels about them: 

The starring protein: legumes

Every eating plan requires good protein sources, and the climate diet calls for it primarily in the form of legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Like starchy foods, legumes are relatively easy to grow, requiring less water to grow than most vegetables. "They also are nitrogen fixers, which means they take nitrogen from the environment and deposit to the soil," Palmer says, which is good for soil health (and thus, the environment). Like starchy foods, this is another food group that won't break the bank.

"Americans consume three times as much meat as other cultures, so even using legumes instead of meat half of the time will have a great impact," Palmer says. When compared to steak, legumes are lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber, a benefit they deliver along with their protein content.

The other primary source of protein on this sustainable diet: nuts. Yes, they require a bit more water than other foods, it still has a relatively low environmental impact compared to animal sources of protein. Plus, they offer lots of other benefits like healthy fats, vitamin E, copper, and other phytonutrients.

Interestingly, the diet also calls for some fish intake for people's protein needs. But this should be done mindfully, as the seafood industry has been known to contribute to overfishing and other environmental harms. "When it comes to sustainability with fish, my biggest recommendation to people is checking the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which you can download and use as an app, which helps consumers choose seafood that isn't overfished and has low environmental impact," Palmer says, adding that many supermarkets are taking this step themselves, only selling fish varieties that are recommended.

Add in some healthy fats

The climate diet also includes a good dose of healthy fats, sourced primarily from nuts, fish (which also count as protein), and healthy plant-based oils like olive oil. Eating a diet rich in unsaturated fats is linked to better brain health, heart health, and living a longer life than without not eating them regularly.

If you want it, there's room for animal products

Palmer emphasizes that the point of the planetary health diet isn't to shame meat eaters; it's to raise awareness of the environmental impact our food choices make. Indeed, despite claims on Twitter that the diet was anti-meat, the eating plan recommends that people keep dairy products and eggs on their plates, as well as very small amounts of poultry and red meat. But that is optional; per the EAT-Lancet website detailing the planetary health diet, "vegetarian and vegan diets are two healthy options within the planetary health diet but are personal choices."

Of course, as with fish, knowing which type of dairy, meat, and eggs to buy comes into play here, too. Going for grass-fed dairy items and range free eggs makes it more likely that the animals who produced the healthy foods you're consuming were treated ethically with a smaller environmental impact.

There's of course a lot that everyone needs to do (particularly large corporations) in order to turn back the tides on climate change. But on an individual basis, experts like Palmer agree that the simplest thing people can do is adjust what and how they eat. "Even eating this way some of the time will have an impact," Palmer says. With an eating plan that benefits your health, wallet, and the planet, there's little reason to not at least give it a shot.

More food news: accessibility and sustainability don't have to be mutually exclusive. Plus, here's where regenerative agriculture comes in and why it's important.

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