Sustainable Eating

Easy strategies that are good for your health and the environment

By Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE
Director of Nutrition, California Health & Longevity Institute

The origins of our diet can be found through a study of human history. Looking back as far as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, people consumed very simple foods: plants, animals, and minerals. This diet of whole foods continued until the mid–twentieth century, when we moved from a largely farm-based food supply to a more commercialized system. As a result, our modern diet is a stark contrast to what humans have historically eaten. Today our complex, industrialized, and often highly toxic food system produces foodlike items that your grandmother would not recognize as food. Consumption of these foodlike items is sometimes referred to as the “Western diet.”

Science now tells us that consumption of a Western diet composed of highly processed food causes most of the diseases that are prevalent in our population today. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and a new book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, for years has touted a mantra for healthy eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” With obesity, chronic heart disease, diabetes, and cancer rates at all-time highs, it’s high time we evaluate the way we eat and change it through the practice of sustainable eating.

What Is Sustainable Eating?

Sustainable eating is defined as consuming food that is healthy for the body and the environment. In addition, it is humane for workers and respectful of animals, provides fair wages to farmers, and supports agricultural communities. In many ways it is the antithesis of the Western diet.

Sustainable eating is directly tied to our health. The main component of sustainable eating is consuming a plant-based diet, one in which plant material makes up the majority of the volume of food on the plate. With a high level of antioxidants, plants protect our bodies from oxidative stress, which damages cells, later causing diseases. A plant-based diet not only assists your body with its elaborate natural defense system aimed at minimizing damage from environmental toxins but also decreases your carbon footprint. In addition, eating food grown in a sustainable way reduces the potential consequences of pesticide contamination.

Eating foods that are grown locally is an important aspect of sustainable eating. Local produce varieties tend to be chosen for flavor and nutrition over shipping ability and are often in the market within 24 to 48 hours after harvest. In contrast, imported produce is picked before it is fully ripe and before nutrient content is completely developed. Therefore it can lose more of its nutrient value in the long travel time to your market. Finally, eating a sustainable, plant-based diet has a positive impact on biodiversity, climate change, and the water supply.

Reconnecting to food through sustainable eating can be a revolution against a broken, industrialized food system that has made us and the planet sick. Changing your eating behavior, even partially, will have a great impact on your health and the environment.

To help you begin this lifestyle journey, here are some easy, helpful strategies:

  • Eat seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day (choose in-season, locally grown ones).
  • Buy organic—especially meat, poultry, and dairy products.
  • Shop at local growers’ markets.
  • Use frozen fruit and vegetables to substitute for out-of-season produce.
  • Eat less animal protein: 6 to 8 ounces per day for women and 8 to 10 ounces per day for men.
  • Increase vegetarian food choices (more beans, lentils, nuts, and soy).
  • Drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water.
  • Join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group for fresh, local produce delivered to your door.
  • Use fewer processed grains: choose whole oats instead of packaged cereals, and eat whole grains like faro instead of processed and refined starches.
  • Buy real, whole foods with less packaging.
  • Eat sustainable, wild fish and seafood.