How To Eat For The Planet Daily, From A Climate & Nutrition Expert
My sustainability journey began in college as a nutrition science major. It was there that I first learned about the connections between our own personal health and the foods we eat. Then, in 2008, I read the book Whose Water Is It Anyway, detailing the necessity of adequate water to grow the foods we need to survive. This eye-opening read led me down the path of studying climate change and its effects on food security—specifically in Ethiopia, a country that depends on rain for most of its food needs.
My "aha" moment.
While in Ethiopia, I met dozens of individuals who migrated from their farming villages into the capital city, Addis Ababa, because they hadn't received enough rain to grow food. They came to Addis to earn a cash income so they could buy enough imported foods to feed their families for that harvest year. They hoped that the move would be temporary and they'd be able to return home during the next harvest season when the rains returned. For many of these families, farming was their livelihood. Without it, they'd lose their culture, their way of life, and be at definite risk for malnutrition. To them, climate stability meant everything.
From this experience, I realized just how much climate change can affect humanity's ability to grow enough food for a growing population. The impact of an increasingly erratic environment is very apparent in places like Ethiopia, but it's taking its toll everywhere. In parts of the United States, for example, groundwater is drying up and topsoil is blowing away, potentially leaving us in a situation where our own food security is also at risk.
And it isn't just that climate change will affect our ability to grow food. It's also that the foods we eat affect the environment, sometimes in a negative way.
For example, it takes 10 times as much land to produce one gallon of cow's milk as it does to produce one gallon of oat milk. Likewise, it is possible to grow 1,000 times more calories of plant-based foods, such as wheat, on one acre of land as calories from beef on that same acre of land. And, when you consider how much of our greenhouse gases come from animal agriculture—more than all the cars, planes, trains, and ships in the world—you quickly realize just how much what we eat affects the environment.
Pairing climate-friendly food with balanced nutrition.
As I grappled with these ugly realities about the connection between climate and food in Ethiopia, I also formed a deeper understanding of how nutrition can be a proactive wellness approach and even directly, positively impact health risk and trajectory1 for things like glycemia, insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health, and more.
By the time I gave birth to my son in early 2014, I was already a plant-based consumer for health reasons. Yet, I couldn't ignore everything I had learned about the food-environment connections and the environment-food connections. So, I doubled down on plant-based eating for health, for sustainability, and for environmental reasons. I do it for my son and his generation.
As I write about at length in my new book, Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do To Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life, when we eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet, we not only improve our own health, but we also help the environment support our children's future in the following ways:
- We reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the foods we eat.
- We decrease the amount of land that is needed to grow our foods and therefore decrease the need for further deforestation (and we really need those forests).
- We reduce the amount of water that is needed to produce our foods, which saves our precious water resources (only 3% of water on Earth is freshwater).
While it may seem challenging to follow a whole-foods, plant-based diet, here are my top tips to make it doable, achievable, and scrumptious for the whole family to enjoy:
- Choose plant-based proteins and nondairy milk over meat and dairy. This will significantly reduce the amount of land and water your meals require to produce and help cut your personal carbon footprint. It will be like cutting your emissions as much as driving 10 miles per meal and saving around three months' worth of showers every day!
- Reduce your food waste by planning your meals ahead of time: In our house, we all get a vote on what we are eating for the week so we know exactly how much to buy, when we will use it, and how we are going to store it. This saves time, money (roughly $1,000 per year per family by some estimates), and it reduces greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food in landfill.
- If you have kids, let them pick and try out new vegetables from the store or farmers market: You may find some really interesting and tasty new produce that adds variety, vitamins, and minerals to your diet while at the same time enhancing your health. My family's new favorite? Roasted parsnips and rutabaga.
- Join a community garden or CSA: This is a great way to help support your local farmers and farming communities. It will also give you access to farm-fresh produce that has traveled minimal distances, tastes great, and retains all of its vitamins and minerals.
- Have fun trying out new plant-based recipes: Keep things interesting in the kitchen by continuing to try new plant-based recipes. One of our new favorites is this chipotle black-bean burger; it's delicious, easy to make, high in protein, high in fiber, full of polyphenols and antioxidants, and just darn right good for our own health and the environment.
The bottom line.
It took me a long time to realize how what we eat can benefit our own health and the environment; the knowledge I've gained in this time has made me healthier and more environmentally friendly and has given me the tools to help you and your family achieve these benefits now. Good eating!
Dana Ellis Hunnes Ph.D., MPH, RD is a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles, CA. She received her Masters and Ph.D. in Public Health from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, her RD from Emory University Hospital, and her Nutrition degree from Cornell University.
She has written a book with Cambridge University Press: Recipe For Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life (2022), and has written for Self Magazine, HuffPost, One Green Planet, Planet Experts, Whole Foods Magazine, and Pebble Magazine. She has spoken on environmentally friendly diets and health with Planet Acterra, on Spectrum 1 News, KTLA 5 News, and KATU 2 News.