Challenge Ten: Eat Right

Want to make some changes in your life to help the planet? One of the most important things you can do is change what you eat. The environmental benefits that can accrue from changing your diet far outweigh the impacts of most other actions you can take, such as recycling or using CFLs. The good news is a diet with a lower environmental footprint can be better for your health and pocketbook.

One of the simplest, and cheapest, things you can do to reduce your personal impact on the planet is to eat less meat. The production and processing of meat requires substantial amounts of land, fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and water; and the use of these resources contributes significantly to climate change, deforestation, and the contamination of our soil and water. For example, producing animal protein requires on average 11 times more fossil energy and 100 times more water than producing the same amount of protein from a grain crop, such as corn. Even if a strict vegetarian diet is out of the question, reducing the amount of meat in your diet is one of the most direct and effective ways to lessen your environmental footprint.

Your choices at the grocery store and at restaurants can help the planet in other ways too. No matter what kinds of foods you choose to eat, you can select products that are grown, handled and processed in environmentally friendly ways. For example, choosing organic produce can help to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used in growing that food. Organic farming practices also tend to work in line with natural ecosystems, rather than trying to alter or control them, which can promote biodiversity and restore environmental health in farmland. Other examples include choosing meat and dairy products from organic, pasture-raised and grass-fed animals; or seafood that’s harvested in a way that ensures the health and stability of that species.

Where your food comes from is another important consideration. Buying food that’s grown and processed locally reduces the distances that food travels to reach your plate (so-called “food miles”). The shorter travel distances mean less fossil fuel consumption, which helps to mitigate climate change and air pollution. As well, locally-grown food helps to preserve farmland and green space in your local community (it’s good for the local economy too).

I wanted to explore if a diet that’s better for the environment would be better for me too. So for one month, I challenged myself to make meaningful changes to my diet that lessened my impact on the planet. I wanted to make sure these changes are manageable and realistic – things I can foresee doing long after the month is up. So while a strict vegetarian diet or 100-mile diet might be best for the environment, they are simply too restrictive for me to adopt over the long haul.

I wanted to take on a diet that encompasses the spirit of these planet-saving philosophies – less meat, more fresh and unprocessed foods – while not being overly restrictive or expensive. After some research, I decided upon the Mediterranean diet. This doesn’t mean eating Greek or Italian food per se, but rather eating a mix of foods that’s traditionally consumed by people of the Eastern Mediterranean region. The diet is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals; and low in red meat, animal fats, refined sugar and highly processed foods. In many ways, it flips the typical Western diet on its head. Specifically, the diet recommends that you:

  • Eat high quantities of vegetables, fruits, legumes (e.g. beans), and whole grain cereals.
  • Eat moderate quantities of fish, white meats, nuts (unsalted), and low-fat dairy products.
  • Eat low quantities of red meat, eggs, and sweets.
  • Use mono-unsaturated fat (e.g. olive oil) rather than animal fat (e.g. butter or lard).
  • Do not add salt to your food.
  • Drink water rather than sugary drinks. If you wish, drink red wine during meals (in moderation).
  • Limit highly processed fast foods and ready meals. (For my challenge, I decided to ban fast foods and ready meals entirely for the month.)

The long-term health benefits from adopting the Mediterranean diet are impressive. Research has shown that following the diet for a number of years reduces the risks of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The diet also provides a healthy way to manage your weight and increase longevity.

I’m all for reducing my long-term health risks, but it’s often difficult to keep such things in mind when making day-to-day, often last-minute decisions on what to eat. On the spur of the moment, the lure of a mouth-watering burger can trump any internal dialogue about lowering my future risk of high blood pressure.

Here’s where the Mediterranean diet shines – it’s based on moderation, not abstinence. You don’t have to completely give up specific foods, but rather moderate your consumption of them. With red meat, for instance, the diet suggests cutting back on the amount you eat to about four servings per month (one serving is fairly small: about 60 grams of cooked meat). This is ideal for someone who likes a good cut of steak or a burger once in a while. And since it’s a special treat, you may just savour every bite a little more. I indulged in red meat once this month – while on a trip to Chicago I dined at one of the city’s hallmark steakhouses. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can almost taste each bite of that utterly perfect filet today. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Even so, if I’m to keep to a new diet over the long haul, it helps if there are some other immediate benefits to help make the new eating habits stick. It turns out the Mediterranean diet delivers. For one, it’s simple to follow. The dietary guidelines are quite general – it doesn’t prescribe specific meals or special foods to eat and there are no hard and fast rules to obey. As a result, the diet is remarkably easy to implement, it’s flexible, and it doesn’t take any extra time to prepare your food. In fact, I found the diet helped to simplify my meals, which actually reduced the time I spent in the kitchen.

Secondly, the Mediterranean diet helps to save you money. The mix of foods in the diet generally doesn’t cost as much as the foods in a typical Western meat-based diet. As well, following the diet forces you to eat at home more often. While it’s certainly possible to make healthy eating choices while dining out, it can be difficult to moderate the ingredients and portions of your meals at restaurants. Cooking at home lets you monitor your food more closely and it’s much easier on your pocketbook too. If you wish, the money you save can be used to offset the added cost of buying organic and locally grown food, which can further reduce your impact on the planet.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is how I’ve been feeling this month. Generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed consistent energy levels throughout the day, I’ve been clear-headed, and I’ve slept like a baby all month-long. It’s hard to say if my dietary changes are the sole contributor to these results, but I’d like to think what I’ve been eating is in large part responsible. I’ve even shed a few pounds this month, without making any significant changes to my exercise routine.

So if you’re looking to make a healthy change to your diet – without giving up your favourite foods entirely – consider eating the Mediterranean way. It’s not only good for your health, but also can save you some money and help the planet too. It’s nature’s version of win-win.