Can changing your diet help protect the environment?

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Can a better diet save the world?

A local university professor said if Americans adhere to global dietary recommendations designed to reduce the impact of food production and consumption, environmental degradation could be reduced by up to 38 percent.

“What we eat has an impact on the environment through the land used to grow food, net greenhouse gases released by producing food, and water use,” said Joe Bozeman, a research associate in the University of Illinois Chicago Institute for Environmental Science and Policy and lead author of the study. “By following guidelines developed with human health and the environment in mind, we can help reduce the environmental impact of food production.”

Bozeman and colleagues wanted to see what shifts would be required by Americans in order to adhere to the EAT-Lancet Commission guidelines, the first-ever global dietary guidelines. Drafted in 2019, the recommendations were developed to help reduce environmental degradation caused by food production and consumption of an estimated global population of 10 billion people by the year 2050.

The study found, among other things, that meat and refined sugar are among foods with the highest negative impact on the environment, while vegetables, fish, and nuts have a lower impact.

“We found that shifting to increased vegetable and nuts intake while decreasing red meat and added sugars consumption would help Americans meet EAT-Lancet criteria and reduce environmental degradation between 28 percent and 38 percent compared to current levels,” Bozeman said. “At the same time, health outcomes would improve, so following these global recommendations would result in a win-win for the environment and human health.”

Researchers also calculated changes that would be required for Black, Latinx and white populations in the U.S.

Different populations would have to make different changes, based on their current dietary patterns, Bozeman said. Black people could meet the criteria by shifting dietary intake to include more vegetables and nuts, but less red meat, chicken and added sugars. Latinx people would need to shift their dietary intake to more vegetables and nuts, but less red meat, eggs and added sugars. White people would need to shift their consumption to include less red meat and added sugars, but more nuts.

Taken together, these results show that meeting all criteria, using a balanced diet approach, would significantly decrease environmental degradation in land, greenhouse gases and water.

In the paper, Bozeman and colleagues also called upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization to address the unique barriers minority populations face in accessing the healthy foods needed to achieve a sustainable diet.

The paper was published in the journal "Environmental Justice."

This study was funded, in part, by the UIC Institute for Environmental Science and Policy and the Bayer Diversity Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fellowship.

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