Mixed Diets Offer Health Benefits and Lower Carbon Footprint

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We all make food choices every day. But did you know those choices can affect not only your health but also the health of the planet? A recent study out of the University of Tokyo has researchers thinking about the food we eat a little differently. The experts are not just looking at basic food groups – they’re studying the carbon impacts of dishes and mixed diet as a whole.

Why focus on individual dishes?

How we relate to food is cultural. The ingredients available, the way food is prepared, and the cultural significance of meals vary drastically from place to place. A traditional Italian tomato-based pasta relies on different resources and creates different environmental impacts compared to a Japanese seafood-based pasta dish.

Focusing on complete dishes helps researchers understand how people actually eat and what choices are realistic within a specific culture. By studying dishes, we gain more precise knowledge. That knowledge empowers consumers to select specific meals that improve both their own health and the health of the planet.

“Our main conclusion is this: Mixed diets can offer good health and environmental outcomes,” said study lead author Professor Yin Long. “This is because mixed diets can afford consumers a larger diversity of dishes that can meet both nutritional requirements and have low carbon footprints.”

What is a “mixed diet”? 

A mixed diet includes a balanced variety of foods from all of the food groups.

  • Fruits and vegetables: These nutritional powerhouses offer vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants which are crucial for good health.
  • Whole grains: Opt for whole grains (brown rice, whole-wheat bread, oats) over refined versions. They provide sustained energy, fiber, and important nutrients.
  • Lean proteins: Think chicken, fish, beans, tofu, or lentils. These sources of protein help build and repair body tissue.
  • Healthy fats: Found in foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil. These fats are important for heart health, brain function, and keep you feeling full.

But how do we know which dishes within those diets are the “best” choices? The University of Tokyo study has some insights.

The researchers analyzed 45 popular Japanese dishes, breaking them down by ingredient, cooking time, and, crucially, their environmental impact.

You might be surprised to learn that some plant-based dishes, while low in carbon emissions, didn’t pack the same nutritional punch as one might expect. This is where the research gets helpful. It identifies those healthy, eco-friendly dishes and gives us tools to find similar foods in our own regional cuisines.

“We believe dish-based approaches can inform better the day-to-day organization of food consumption… by acting as a reality check to inform, design, and convey feasible and acceptable ways to steer dietary habits toward more sustainable directions,” said study co-author Professor Alexandros Gasparatos.

The beauty of a mixed diet is that with a few simple shifts, we can make a difference by reducing our carbon footprint

Become a label detective

Ingredient lists and nutritional information on packaged foods tell you a lot. Look for terms like “whole grain,” prioritize shorter ingredient lists, and be mindful of things like added sugars and sodium content.

Expand your recipe repertoire

Don’t be afraid to experiment. There are countless resources online and in cookbooks with delicious, healthy recipes that use a wide range of ingredients. A bit of exploring can lead to wonderful discoveries.

Choose sustainable businesses

When eating out or shopping for groceries, consider businesses that make sustainability a priority. Ask about locally sourced ingredients, inquire about their food waste policies, or look for certifications that show ethical practices.

Remember, small steps matter

You don’t have to overhaul your entire diet overnight. Even small changes, like replacing one processed snack with some fruit or trying a new vegetarian recipe once a week, add up over time.

How do mixed diets reduce carbon emissions?

A mixed food diet lowers carbon emissions primarily by diversifying the sources of food we consume. Here’s how it works in more detail:

  1. Reduced reliance on meat: Meat, especially red meat, has a high carbon footprint due to methane emissions from livestock and the energy-intensive nature of meat production. By incorporating more plant-based options, mixed diets can significantly reduce carbon emissions.
  2. Efficient use of resources: Plant-based foods generally require less water and land than animal-based foods. A diet that includes a variety of plant-based dishes can lead to more efficient use of resources and lower emissions.
  3. Variety leads to sustainability: Mixed diets encourage the consumption of a wider range of foods, which can include locally sourced and seasonally available produce. This reduces the need for transportation and the associated carbon emissions.
  4. Optimization of nutrient intake without excess: By focusing on the nutritional value and environmental impact of individual dishes, mixed diets can optimize nutrient intake without the excess associated with some high-carbon foods, thereby reducing waste and emissions.
  5. Encourages mindful eating practices: Mixed diets also promote mindfulness about food choices, encouraging consumers to consider the environmental impact of their meals. This awareness can lead to choices that are both nutritionally beneficial and lower in carbon footprint.

By diversifying our diet, we can support food production systems that are generally more sustainable and have a lower environmental impact.

Study significance

Taking these kinds of actions builds awareness and makes you an informed consumer. Not only are you making better choices for your body, but you’re also sending a message. Your choices can influence the food industry and push for the broader changes needed for a healthier planet.

“Varying cultural preferences and ingredient availability lead to radically different ways to build healthy and sustainable diets between different countries and local contexts,” said Gasparatos.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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