Sustainable diets for women and the planet: An arranged marriage.

By Dr. Holly WhiteKnight, ND

As per the Food Climate Research Network’s most recent report put it: “The relationship between health and environmental sustainability can best be viewed as an arranged marriage, rather than a love match.”

As North Americans we need to think about the way that we eat, not just for the health of our bodies but also for the good of the planet. With all of unfolding research regarding climate change, it’s no surprise that food security is such an issue. Unpredictable weather patterns and drastic extremes provide challenges for farmers and their crops. “Fad” superfoods deplete the local resources for the native population, driving the prices up so high that their chance for maintaining it as a staple in their diet is no longer financially attainable, as is the case with Quinoa in South America. People are becoming more detached from what it means to eat locally, with whole foods as the center focus of their diet.

Sustainability comes in many faces. Some factors to consider when making sustainable food choices could include:

Environmental factors (e.g. how is it farmed, pesticide use, land degradation, green house gasses, water use for crops, fish stocks and marine ecosystem)

Nutritional factors (e.g. quality of the food, macro and micro-nutrients, individual needs and health status, knowledge and beliefs)

Food and health factors (e.g. pesticides and health impacts, agricultural-related infectious diseases (zoonotics are the leading cause of infectious disease on the planet), occupational hazards in food industry)

Society and ethics (e.g. labour conditions and standards, animal ethics and welfare, impact of new technologies)

Economy and food supply (e.g. jobs, GDP, terms of trade)

Some problems associated with the North American diet and our planet:

The food system today is destroying our environment, which the future of food production depends on. It contributes to 20-30% of green house gasses (agricultural farms rearing of eggs, milk, and meat, contributes 14% of total global emissions). Grazing livestock and, less directly, the production of feed crops, are together the main agricultural drivers of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation.

The North American diet accounts for 70% of all human water use and is a major source of water pollution. It includes unsustainable fishing practices that deplete species. Our current food system, although it provides enough food for the 7 billion people on earth, does not support affordable and nutritional options for all. About half of the global population is inadequately or inappropriately nourished after hunger, nutrient deficiencies and obesity are taken into account. If we are to address our environmental problems, adapt to climate change and create a more food secure, nutrition enhancing food future, then the current food system needs to change. We need to consume more “sustainable diets‟ – diets that have lower environmental impacts, and are overall healthier.

Problems associated with the North American diet and women’s health:

The most common nutrient deficiencies in women are iron, B12, Omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. Other less frequent deficiencies include calcium, magnesium, iodine, choline, vitamins A, E, and K2. However, iron, B12, and Omega 3s are all sourced in animal products. If we want to live more sustainably for the planet, the most impact we can have is to reduce our consumption of meats and animal products. How can we do this while attaining our daily nutritional requirements?

Try to get plant sources of vitamins and minerals when available. Absorption of iron from plant sources can be increased by having it with vitamin C and taking it away from calcium sources. If eating meat sources for iron, be sure to know the portion size appropriate for you and don’t waste food. One of the biggest problems we have is food waste. Use the whole animal when possible. For example, purchase a whole chicken and use it over several meals, make bone broths, etc. Get a beef share with some friends and give some of the bone leftovers to the dog if they’re not useful for a broth. Be creative with what you eat and try to minimize waste. Supplement with iron only if necessary. Get your blood levels checked first (iron excess is just as problematic as iron deficiency).

B12 is only found in animal products, so again, choose your sources wisely. When possible, support local and organic farmers for meat and eat sparingly.

For omega fatty acids, be sure to choose a sustainable source of fish. Go to www.seachoice.org to help you decide what fish you should avoid for toxicity and detrimental environmental impacts. If supplementing with fish oils, be sure to check out the company (or ask your Naturopath for a good source). You want to be sure that the company supports sustainable practices and is not contaminated with heavy metals.

Vitamin D should be supplemented in the winter months in Canada. With our latitude, you just can’t convert enough active vitamin D in your skin from the sun’s rays. Don’t worry, vitamin D supplements are fortunately sustainable for everyone.

For calcium: You do not need to get calcium from dairy. There are an abundance of plant sources that have adequate calcium in them. Add in some weight bearing exercise in addition to an alkaline diet and you have a good recipe for healthy bones.

Sustainable eating and the food groups:

Fruits and Vegetables

This category is the least impacting for the environment in terms of green house gasses and overall carbon footprint. However, this rings true only if you are eating locally. A brilliant scientist and environmentalist, Diana Beresford-Kroger (author of The Sweetness of a Simple Life) once said something along the lines of “if you can’t grow something in your own backyard then go down to the local farmers market and see if they have it. If you can’t find it there, go to the local grocer and see if they have it. If not, go to a larger grocery store and try to buy the produce from Canada, if not possible, then somewhere in the states. If it’s still not possible to buy your fruit or vegetables from North America and you still must have it, then try to find an import from Europe. And if you still can’t find the food that you’re looking for in those categories, then you probably don’t need it.” In North America we are so spoiled that we eat whatever we want, whenever we want from wherever it is grown in the world without thinking about how much energy was spent to get it to us (farms, planes, refrigeration, etc). Do we really need to be eating mangoes and cherries in February? And if so, at what cost to the future of our planet?

Other friendly crops are root vegetables, brassica family veggies, tubers and hard fruits (like apples). They are the most energy efficient of the fruits and vegetables. Instead of salads in the winter, try sprouting your greens instead from seeds and beans.

Breads, rice, grains, potatoes and pasta

These have a relatively lower green house gas emissions profile to consider with the exception of rice, which is a very water intensive crop. For health, it is more important to enjoy whole grains.

Meat, fish and alternatives

Meat, eggs and fish carry the highest environmental costs. A growing body of academic research warns of the risks to society of not addressing meat consumption. Failure to do so will risk us further broaching our “planetary boundaries‟ – boundaries related to atmospheric green house gas concentrations, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss and so forth, whose transgression may trigger abrupt and possibly catastrophic environmental change. Consider also that sixty percent of all known infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin, and 75% of new human pathogens reported in the past 25 years originated in animals.

SUSTAINABLE WAYS FOR THE BOTH OF US (planet and person)….

– Nutritional and sustainability goals can be aligned with some work and sacrifice. They include a diverse plant-based diet that includes tubers, whole grains (but not rice), legumes, fruits and vegetables that are field grown and robust.

– Dairy products or fortified plant substitutes eaten in moderation with other calcium containing foods can also be consumed. (Physical exercise and strength training as an adjunct is important to maintain bone health.)

– Meat should be eaten sparingly with all animal parts consumed, supplementing only as necessary. Include unsalted seeds and nuts. Acquire some fish and aquatic products sourced from certain fisheries (seachoice.org), and omega 3 supplements as needed.

– Limit consumption of sugary and fatty sweets, chocolates, snacks and beverages (wasted farm and production since we don’t ‘need’ them).

– Consume filtered tap water.

Achieving a low environmental-impact diet that is compatible with health may also require greater emphasis on other non-food issues that bolster the nutritional quality of the diet, such as physical activity and sunlight exposure for on bone health, and food fortification processes. Enjoy your “arranged marriage” and know that you are helping future generations enjoy our planet in a sustainable and healthy way.