We’ll admit that leading a healthy and sustainable lifestyle does require that you make some changes. Now, before you start to worry about completely turning your life over, you should remember that the best way to make changes stick is by making small ones. Now the only question is, how small?
Well, researchers found out how you can make small, but effective, changes that’ll protect your longevity, as well as that of the planet.
Small diet changes can protect you and the planet
Chances are, your diet could be healthier. Thankfully, you don’t need to do a complete overhaul. A new study has found that small dietary changes can improve your health and reduce environmental damage.
The study, published in the journal Nature Food, examined 5853 foods that adults consumed from the What We Eat in America 2011–2016 database. They used the Health Nutritional Index (HENI) to calculate how healthy each food was.
HENI works by calculating the minutes of life lost, or gained, from eating certain foods. With this, the researchers placed the foods in different groups before selecting the foods that were closest to their respective group’s median HENI scores for further analysis.
They also considered seven additional foods representing different dishes. In the end, the researchers were left with 167 foods, which is roughly equal to 27% of the average American’s daily caloric intake.
The researchers also focused on the environmental impact that the chosen foods have,
“Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behavior, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts,” said Katerina Stylianou, who did the research as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at U-M’s School of Public Health. To assess the environmental impact, the researchers used IMPACT World+. This model calculates each food’s environmental footprint. It assesses the life cycle impact of foods, as well as water use and human health damages.
After collecting their nutritional and environmental data, the researchers then used this information to classify the foods into three color zones: green, yellow, and red.
Similar to a traffic light, green foods are a go because they provide the best health benefits. They also have a low environmental impact. These foods include nuts, fruits, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and some low-environmental impact seafood.
The amber foods are foods that should be eaten in moderation, as they are only slightly healthy. They also do have an environmental impact. These foods include poultry, dairy products, egg-based foods, cooked grains, and vegetables produced in a greenhouse.
Unsurprisingly, the red zone includes foods that are unhealthy. The foods also cause considerable environmental impacts and should be reduced or avoided. The foods include processed meat, beef, pork, lamb, sugar-sweetened beverages, cheese-based foods, shrimp, and some salmon.
What did the study find?
The study found that making small dietary changes could help both you and the planet. It found that substituting 10% of daily calorie intake from red zone foods for a mix of green zone foods could do wonders.
The substitution could reduce your dietary carbon footprint by one-third. The substitution could also provide you with an extra 48 minutes of healthy minutes per day.
“The urgency of dietary changes to improve human health and the environment is clear,” said Olivier Jolliet, senior author of the paper and professor of environmental health sciences at U-M’s School of Public Health.
“Our findings demonstrate that small targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits without requiring dramatic dietary shifts.”
The study also found that green foods can actually add 25 minutes of healthy living to your lifespan. Meanwhile, red foods like hot dogs steal 36 minutes of your healthy lifespan and create irreversible environmental damage.
“Putting numbers and quantifying these differences is important and informative in two directions.” Dr. Jolliet told Medical News Today, “First: numbers have the power to [make] future effects […] more realistic and bring them to our present consciousness, i.e., ‘Oh 36 minutes lost per hot dog, this is substantial… like two cigarettes, do I really want this?”,
“Second: these results help identify what really matters and differentiate […] between the foods we need to avoid, like beef and processed meat, [and] food like dairy or poultry products that are perhaps not ideal but have [a] 4 times [the] lower carbon footprint and are close to neutral, or even slightly beneficial for health,” he added.
Bottom line: small changes matter
A lot of people opt out of living a healthier and sustainable lifestyle because they worry about the drastic changes that they’ll have to make. Fortunately, this study reminds us that even the smallest changes can make a difference.
If you’re not sure where to start, the researchers do have a few recommendations;
“For the “red” foods, beef has the largest carbon footprint across its entire life cycle – twice as high as pork or lamb and four times that of poultry and dairy. From a health standpoint, eliminating processed meat and reducing overall sodium consumption provides the largest gain in healthy life compared with all other food types’’.
“We can all live a longer, healthy life by taking control of what we eat, and a plant-based diet serves not only the individual but the entire population on earth.”
Stylianou, K.S., Fulgoni, V.L. & Jolliet, O. (2021). Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human health and the environment. Nat Food 2, 616–627. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00343-4