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A healthy diet and healthy planet

By: Judy Davie - The Food Coach and information included from Science Daily

For many years I have believed that a healthy diet is closely linked to a healthy planet. It is an opinion, and in the words of a learned professor, it will only ever be an opinion without the evidence of hard data. I'm happy to say that the data has just come in. It's US data but, considering that in late October 2015, Australians were reported to have taken over the US as the meat eating capital of the world, it's safe to say, with no expensive study required, that while the numbers may be different the overall result is the same. Small tweaks towards a healthier diet adds up to significant inroads in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change.

In what is thought to be the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, examined the potential to mitigate climate change through the food and health care systems combined.
In the US currently, 30 % of total greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system with animal based food contributing the greatest amount. High consumption of animal based foods and low consumption of plant based foods is a major factor in the number of preventative diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. The same is true here in Australia.

The following is an excerpt from Science Daily written by Julie Cohen with material provided by the University of California, Santa Barbara and study director David Cleveland

The researchers started with existing data which examined the effect of foods on diseases. Then, using life-cycle assessment data for the foods that changed in the healthier model diets, they analysed the effects of the diets on greenhouse gas emissions for the food system. For the health care system, the researchers estimated the change in risk of diabetes, colorectal cancer and coronary heart disease due to the healthier diets and the subsequent effect on both health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

To create healthier model diets, the researchers altered the standard 2,000-calorie-a-day U.S. diet, changing the sources of about half of those calories. The different model diets progressively reduced the amount of red and processed meats, with the most stringent diet eliminating them completely. Fruit and vegetable intake was doubled, and peas and beans increased to replace the meat protein removed. Refined grains were partially replaced with whole grains. Added sugar, which Cleveland noted is a known health risk, was not reduced and neither were dairy, eggs, fish or non-red meat.

"This means our estimates are probably very conservative, both in terms of health and climate change implications," Cleveland said. "Just changing half of the diet and including only some of the diseases associated with diets, we found a huge effect.

"Food has a tremendous impact on the environment," he added. "That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well on our health and our health care costs."

That is exactly what the scientists found. The adoption of healthier model diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer and Type 2 diabetes by 20 to 40 percent.

Health care costs went down by $77 billion to $93 billion annually and direct greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 222 kilograms to 826 kilograms per person per year.

"In the third diet -- which contained no red or processed meats -- there was a savings of $95 billion out of the total annual cost of $230 billion for those three diseases," Cleveland explained. "That's not huge compared to the $3 trillion total in health care costs, but it's a start. Results like these can also help motivate individual and policy changes."

In terms of climate policy, the healthier diets could contribute up to 23 percent of the U.S. Climate Action Plan goal to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, Cleveland said. According to Cleveland, the findings add weight to the conclusion of several other recent studies: Diet change must be part of successful climate change mitigation policies, and climate change mitigation must be included in policies to improve the food system.

Journal Reference
1.Elinor Hallström, Quentin Gee, Peter Scarborough, David A. Cleveland. A healthier US diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and health care systems. Climatic Change, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10584-017-1912-5


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