Choose Your Protein Wisely, and Not Too Much
Methane possesses 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and in Australia, agriculture is the most significant contributor of methane (59.5%). To put this in another context, overall global livestock production accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation system. The Food Guide recommends 2-3 serves of meat or alternatives per day and 2 1/2 – 4 serves of dairy. For critically ill patients, adequate protein of high biological value is of the upmost importance. On the other hand, for a large majority of population, an excess consumption of meat may be paving the way to a lifetime of chronic disease.
It’s not just the amount of meat consumed but also the source that can impact our environmental footprint. Start by encouraging one meat free day per week utilizing legumes and eggs as a protein source. Condone chicken, pigs, and meat from animals that graze. Limit consumption of meat from methane producing cows, sheep and goats, and choose methane free kangaroo instead. Lastly, seek alternatives to dairy for sources of calcium such as green leafy vegetables (kale, chard, boy choy) or fish bones. See my post Getting Enough Calcium on a Dairy Free Diet.
Become an Expert on Sustainable Seafood
Fish stocks are declining. Whether it be due to raising ocean temperatures, reduced nutrient supply, ocean acidity or extreme weather it is a dire issue that needs to be acknowledged. If anyone, it is Dietitians that should be the experts on sustainable seafood. Current recommendations of 2-3 servings of fish per week can be irresponsible if the type and source is not specified. The Australian Marine Conservation Society tells us to say no to Orange Roughy (aka Deep Sea Perch), Farmed salmon (aka Tasmanian Salmon), Shark (aka Flake), Snapper and Southern Bluefin Tuna (wild and farmed), amongst many other species. It encourages us to choose Mackerel, Whiting, Mullet, canned imported salmon (from Canada or Alaska) and canned imported sardines (Canada or Thailand) more often.
Aquaculture, or fish farming has been portrayed as a good alternative to help curb overfishing. More research into the area might reveal that often this practice leads to even more unsustainable behaviour. Farmed fish are often dependent on wild fish for feed, often consuming more fish that it produces. A farmed tuna is fed 8–11 kilograms of fish for each kilogram of live weight gained. Farmed salmon, Southern Bluefin Tuna, Yellowtail Kingfish and Trout are also kept in sea cages where there is the potential for pollution and fish to escape into the wild, along with the antibiotics and diseases they carry. With three-quarters of the worlds oceans overfished, when recommending a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids we do have the responsibility to encourage the sustainable option. See the Australian Marine Conservation Society website for more details. Fore more reading view my post Seafood: Is There Something Fishy About Fish Farms and Seafood: The Good The Bad And The Ugly.
Encourage Real Food
By encouraging real food and reducing processed foods, we are not only keeping lifestyle diseases at bay, we are also reducing packaging waste. There are 3.3 million tonnes of packaging produced per year in Australia. Australia alone produces more that 1.3 million tonnes of plastic per year, made from oil, gas and coal – all non-renewable resources. If the packaging isn’t recycled it can end up in landfills which takes up space and can result in soil and water contamination and the generation of methane.
When encouraging real food, genetically modified organisms (GMO) need to be questioned. There is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to GMOs and human health and no long term, independent safety studies on GMO foods exist. What we lack in knowledge in regards to health we make up for in comprehension of environmental effects. The risks are endless when altered genes are released into the environment as there is no controlling where they go. This puts a huge risk on the preservation of plant biodiversity and organic farmers. GMO crops have been altered so they can be heavily sprayed be the toxic herbicide glyphosate. Not only does this expose the consumer to this carcinogen, but it also pollutes the waterways. It is difficult for the common consumer to avoid GMOs as Australia has minimal labelling laws in place. With GMO corn, soy and sugar (sugar beets) in most processed foods in some form or another, it is safe to say that 80% of the packaged food in the supermarkets contain some GMO ingredients. If we encourage consumers to stick to the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket we can assure them they are most likely shopping GMO free. Globally, aside from GMO papaya from Hawaii and to a small extent sweet corn and squashes, all other fruits and vegetables are GMO free. For further reading see my post Genetically Modified Foods: What This Means For Your Health and The Health of Your Environment and Canada Approves GMO Salmon.
Support Organic and Go Local
While the nutritional benefits of organic foods have not yet been supported by the hard facts, there are some studies that have reported the presence of more natural plant compounds (phytonutrients) in organic crop. There is also evidence that certified organic produce has a lower chemical residue level. Organic crops are grown without the use of most synthetic and petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. They use natural fertilizers which include compost, livestock manure and legume cover crops which help to increase soil fertility and build soil carbon. Swiss researchers have found that soils on farms managed by organic principles are much healthier and house a more diverse community of organisms; another great argument for the organic debate.
Organic produce is often more expensive than conventional produce which is a barrier for many consumers. Often locally produced food straight from the farmer is grown with organic principles in mind but the small farms may not be able to afford to go through the organic certification process. Ask questions and get to know your farmer. Shopping at farmers markets will bring you closer to the source of your food. It will also encourage you to eat seasonally, a practice that has been long lost since the advent of the major grocery chains.
Eating for our health and the health of the planet shouldn’t be a new concept, and really it isn’t. Encouraging less meat and processed foods, and more legumes and vegetables is the basis of most lifestyle disease prevention counselling. The link between increasing waist-lines and environmental strain may seem clear to most of us, however the lay person may not be so well informed. Dietitians have the potential to influence the food choices of thousands of people on a daily basis. Now is the time to begin guiding our patients towards a diet which is both healthier for them, and also the environment.
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