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Modern human diets pose many risks to both health and the environment

You probably try to make the best choices you can when it comes to feeding yourself and your family – but is what you see in the grocery store or local market the healthiest or most sustainable option? A new study out of McGill University has some troubling findings that reveal most human diets, high in meat and sugar, pose health risks and harm the environment.

Human diets, then and now

Just a few decades ago, modern human meals tended to be simpler, focused on home-cooked foods with less emphasis on year-round fresh produce. While fresh fruits and vegetables were enjoyed seasonally, variety was often more limited than today.

Today, despite vastly expanded options and knowledge about nutrition, dietary habits have taken a turn for the worse. This begs the question: with supermarkets bursting with variety and nutritional information readily available, why haven’t average human diets become healthier?

Researchers from McGill University and the International Food Policy Research Institute conducted a multi-year study to analyze the evolution of the Canadian food supply.

Their goal was to understand how changes in food availability and consumption patterns impact human health and the environment.

The findings indicate a troubling mismatch between what’s available in the food system and what constitutes optimal nutrition for both individuals and the planet.

Disappointing reality of modern human food

To assess how well the modern human food landscape supports healthy eating, researchers needed reliable benchmarks. They chose two highly respected sources:

  • Canada food guide: This government-issued resource provides Canadians with evidence-based recommendations about the types and quantities of foods needed to promote health and prevent chronic disease.
  • EAT-Lancet commission: This global commission of scientists convened to create a planetary health diet – one that emphasizes optimal nutrition for humans while ensuring long-term sustainability of food production and safeguarding the environment.

The researchers meticulously analyzed nearly 60 years of data from Canadian farms and food companies. They wanted to understand the complex relationship between what is produced, how it’s processed, and what products end up readily available to consumers.

Unfortunately, this in-depth analysis revealed a disheartening trend: the food most easily accessible to the average modern human doesn’t measure up to the standards of either the Canada Food Guide or the EAT-Lancet Commission’s recommendations.

This starkly shows that although we know about healthy, sustainable eating, our current food system does not consistently support those choices.

Food supply

“One of the study’s most striking findings is the evident imbalance in the food supply. There’s a conspicuous overabundance of red meat and sugar, products that have long been associated with various health issues when consumed in excess,” says Vincent Abe-Inge, Ph.D. student in McGill’s Department of Bioresource Engineering and lead author of the study.

Sadly, we just aren’t seeing a matching increase in healthier options. “Conversely, there’s a notable deficiency in healthier alternatives like nuts, legumes, and vegetables,” Abe-Inge continues.

Diet impact on environment

We often overlook the environmental implications of what we eat. However, a meat-heavy diet has consequences far beyond individual health.

Animal products, while representing a smaller portion of our overall food sources, leave a disproportionately large environmental footprint.

The study delved into the specific environmental costs associated with animal-based foods:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Livestock production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, which play a major role in climate change.
  • Water use: Raising animals for food requires substantial amounts of water for both the animals themselves and the crops grown to feed them. This high water demand puts a strain on water resources.
  • Land use: Animal agriculture requires vast areas of land, both for grazing and for growing feed crops. This land use often contributes to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

In essence, the study highlights that our over-reliance on animal-based foods exacts a higher cost on the planet than is necessary to feed the population. A shift towards more plant-based diets could significantly reduce these harmful environmental impacts.

Better diet for better environment

The study underscores that reducing meat and sugar consumption is beneficial, but there are broader steps humans in modern societies can take to enhance both their health and the environment:

Substituting plant-based proteins

While adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not necessary, incorporating plant-based proteins like beans or lentils instead of meat in several meals each week can make a significant difference.

This shift not only supports personal health by reducing the intake of animal fats and cholesterol, but also lessens the environmental burden, as plant-based foods generally require fewer resources like water and land compared to meat.

More fruits and vegetables

Consistently increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables is not only a healthful choice but also an environmentally favorable one.

These foods are packed with essential nutrients that promote health and are more sustainable to produce than many animal-derived products.

Their lower environmental impact is due to factors such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions and less intensive land use.

Demand better diet and environment

Individuals have the power to influence the market by demanding more healthful, sustainable food options. This can be done through purchasing decisions and by voicing the need for changes in food policy.

Consumers can encourage businesses and policymakers to prioritize the availability of nutritious and environmentally friendly foods, leading to broader changes in food systems and policies.

Change is possible

This study isn’t designed to make individuals feel guilty about their dietary choices. Instead, it aims to bring widespread attention to the systemic issues within our diets and their consequences on health and environment.

Understanding these challenges is the first step towards positive change. By shedding light on the disconnect between the way we produce and consume food and its implications for health and the environment, the study empowers consumers, policymakers, and food industry leaders to take action.

The focus lies in advocating for solutions:

  • Informed consumer choices: Greater awareness of these issues can drive individuals to make small but impactful shifts in their own diets, creating a demand for healthier and more sustainable options.
  • Policy changes: The findings highlight the need for policy interventions that support a more balanced food supply, incentivizing the production and consumption of plant-based foods and potentially disincentivizing those foods with excessive environmental burdens.
  • Industry transformation: Food producers and retailers have a crucial role to play in evolving their offerings and practices to better align with the needs of both people and the planet.

“There’s an urgent need to adopt a holistic approach that not only prioritizes public health but also the health of our planet. By aligning food supply more closely with recommended dietary guidelines, we can pave the way for a healthier, more sustainable future,” concludes Vincent Abe-Inge.

The full study was published in the journal Global Food Security.


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