Every time we turn around, there’s a new healthier-than-thou diet trend taking over both the market and the media. The latest advice on what’s best for our bodies is often one of the top guiding factors in determining buyer behavior in the food industry.
But this year, for the first time ever, the US's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended considering not only personal health but also environmental impact in writing the new dietary guidelines. This recommendation builds on a newly burgeoning trend in healthful food consumption: sustainable eating.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is the group of people who publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. The committee is formed jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Dietary Guidelines are reviewed and revised every five years. That’s why you used to see the old food pyramid a whole lot more than you do now: those recommended servings were from the 1990 DGA, which has since been revised a few separate times. The most update to the guidelines occurred in 2010, which means we’re due for a new version this year. That’s why the committee has been discussing these topics of sustainability and sustainable eating—they’re considering adding them as elements to the 2015 version of the guide.
The idea of sustainable eating is to apply the principles of sustainability—that is, attempting to only consume that which can be rapidly and healthily reproduced without dwindling natural resources—to one’s food buying and eating habits. Rather than simply eating clean or eating organic, eating sustainable requires that one considers the effects of their food purchases not only on their own body, but on the environment as well. This is the first time that the DGAC has made recommendations that consider the planet as well as the person.
So how do I eat sustainably?
As with all other health trends, it can be confusing to figure out what counts as part of a sustainable diet and what doesn’t. And then, even if you can figure out what to eat, it’s not always easy to figure out where to get it. Here are some tips for upping the sustainability of your diet, while keeping to a tight budget.
1. Eat local and eat produce in season.
When produce is shipped across long distances so that, say, a consumer in New England can eat an avocado in February, the carbon footprint generated by that shipping process can be large. By eating produce that can be fetched locally, you avoid supporting the spew of chemicals caused by planes, trucks, and ships carrying produce around the world. Additionally, when you eat in season, your produce is less likely to have required chemicals and pesticides in order to thrive.
2. Cut down on eating meat.
Animal farming is one of the greatest contributors to the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. If that’s enough to make you want to go full vegetarian, go ahead! But for the rest of us, even cutting down on meat intake slightly can have a large impact over time.
3. Buy organic.
This one can be tough, because the organic eating craze has spurred whole chains like Whole Foods that make a lot of money off of organically-grown foods. Remember that even organic food isn’t sustainable when it’s shipped long distances. Also, don’t feel pressured to spend absurd amounts of money on brand-name produce. If you have a local farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group, you may fare better financially (and socially!) there.
Stuck on which foods are worth buying organic and which aren’t? The President’s Cancer Panel issued a report with two lists they call “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen.” The Dirty Dozen are the fruits and vegetables that test most highly for cancer-causing chemicals when grown traditionally, while the Clean Fifteen are more likely to be a safe bet.
4. Buy in bulk—and don’t buy bottled.
If you can afford it, memberships to stores like Costco or Sam’s Club can pay off—financially and for the environment. When you buy in bulk, you reduce the amount of packaging on the food you’re purchasing. The less packaging, the less garbage!
By the same token, don’t buy bottled water. You’re the one paying for all that plastic, and even recyclables require fossil fuel energy to be processed and reused. Buy a reusable water bottle and a water purifier, and stick to the tap where possible.
When healthy food is hard to find
Eating sustainably requires effort, even for those with plenty of resources. For those who live in food deserts, it can be nearly impossible. But in many cities, communities are gathering together to help. Many cities have started programs to get fresh, healthy produce into areas without fully stocked grocery stores. The NYC Green Cart program subsidizes fruit vendors who work in hard-to-reach areas of the five boroughs. While the fruit on those green carts is sourced by the individual vendor (so it’s not necessarily organic or local), buying any type of fruit instead of processed, packaged food is a step in the right direction and can have a big impact.
There are also very feasible ways for community leaders to initiate movements that can help groups of people who are looking for healthier options get food by working together. The Red Hook Community Farm is a neighborhood effort in Brooklyn that results in local produce all year round. It also brings in students for “farm-based learning programs,” which help perpetuate the cycle of learning. Search around for local gardens in your area, or if you’re feeling particularly assertive, start one of your own.
The Larger Effects
When you’re standing in the grocery store staring at two different types of peach, your personal sustainability choices can seem like they’re not making much of a difference. However, the sustainable eating movement has made its way into huge parts of the food industry, largely due to the increase in demand for sustainable foods. In 2014, McDonald’s announced its intention to switch to fully sustainable beef sourcing by the end of 2016. That's enormous, given that the chain sells about 1 billion pounds of beef annually—and that’s just in the United States. Similarly. many franchises have started pursuing LEED certification, a title that recognizes successful green design in the construction of new buildings.
All that to say, your food choices may not seem important, but gathered with the choices of the rest of your community, they represent a movement towards a better food system.
At the end of the day, maintaining a healthy diet is difficult no matter which way you try to go about it. We all cave to the pressure, stress, and temptation that daily life provides. However, on the days when you’re winning the battle over your dietary habits, sustainable eating is a way to stay accountable to yourself and to the world. For many people, it's doable, and it’s definitely making an impact.