Can your food choices help save the planet?

Eating healthy and sustainable food choices can preserve your waistline, but new evidence suggests it can also help save the planet.

As world leaders meet in Glasgow to discuss action on climate change, a study by University of South Australia scientists found we can all do our bit for the environment with better food choices.

The study, led by dietitian Sara Forbes, found cutting back on “sometimes foods”, such as sweets, pastries, fried foods and processed meat could help the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This follows a 2021 United Nations-backed study that found more than a third of human-caused global emissions come from the way we produce, process and package food.

How our food choices impact the planet

The University of South Australia study reviewed 20 Australian and New Zealand studies and found discretionary food consumption has a large impact on multiple environmental indicators, such as greenhouse gas emissions and “footprints” that consider cropland and water.

Core foods that Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend – such as fruit and vegetables, grains, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, milk, cheese, yoghurt and alternatives – contributed an estimated 67-73 per cent of Australia’s total food-related emissions.

Discretionary foods, including sugar-sweetened drinks, alcohol, confectionary and processed meats, accounted for 27-33 per cent.

Regardless of dietary pattern, whether it be carnivorous, vegetarian, or vegan, we can all make better choices based on resources required to produce the food, according to Sara.

“It’s a balancing act,” she says.

“By reducing the consumption of those discretionary food choices, we can help the environment.”

This could involve moderate consumption, reducing food waste, seeking foods produced locally and knowing the environmental impact of producing various foods in Australia.

This follows a 2021 United Nations-backed study that found more than a third of human-caused global emissions come from the way we produce, process and package food.

How food waste hurts the environment

According to the Climate Council Australians throw out up to 20 per cent of the food they buy, while another 20-40 per cent of fruit and vegetables are rejected before reaching our shelves.

University of Melbourne School of Agriculture and Food senior food systems lecturer Dr Rachel Carey says we need to change the way we produce and eat food.

“Agriculture is one of the main users of land globally and one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss, particularly due to deforestation,” she says.

“It also uses around 70 per cent of the water withdrawn from the earth’s rivers and underground aquifers, degrading waterways.”

Why food that’s good for you is good for the planet

La Trobe University psychology lecturer Dr Matthew Ruby specialises in the psychology of food choice.

He says healthy choices are often good for the environment.

Dr Ruby quotes Michael Pollan’s simple philosophy from his book, In Defense of Food.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Dr Ruby says.

“By food, he (Pollan) means minimally processed foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

“Products with dozens of ingredients wouldn’t really count.

He recommends you choose a variety of fruits and vegetables that are in season for where you live.

“For in-season produce, it’s easier to find something that’s been grown locally (and not flown in from overseas),” he says.

“It also tends to be more affordable and flavourful.”

Tips to eat more sustainably

  • Eat what’s in season.
  • Choose a wide variety of foods – the less processed the better.
  • Rather than force yourself to eat fruit or vegetables you hate, find ones you enjoy.
  • Avoid waste by purchasing only what you need.
  • Avoid packaging where possible.
  • Consider a meat-free Monday.
  • Consume only what we need.
  • Minimise processed food consumption.
  • Aim for a mainly plant-based diet, replacing some meat and fish with beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • Choose fish from certified sustainable sources (for example, the Marine Stewardship Council logo).
  • Eat diverse diets.
  • Minimise food waste.
  • Look for sustainably farmed food, including organic.
  • Ask about how food is produced.
  • Buy direct from farmers where possible.

Written by Cheryl Critchley.