Eating healthier food could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, suggests a new study. As it turns out, some relatively small diet tweaks could add up to significant inroads in addressing climate change.
You are what you eat, as the saying goes, and while good dietary choices boost your own health, they also could improve the health care system and even benefit the planet. Healthier people mean not only less disease but also reduced greenhouse gas emissions from health care.
As it turns out, some relatively small diet tweaks could add up to significant inroads in addressing climate change.
That's the finding of a new study led by UC Santa Barbara researchers, who analyzed the potential effects of healthier model diets for the United States. The results appear in the journal Climatic Change.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has done this," said study director David Cleveland, a research professor in UCSB's environmental studies program and geography department. "People have looked at what effect diets have both on climate and on health, but they've never examined the potential to mitigate climate change through the food system and the health care system together."
The food system contributes about 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest proportion coming from animal-based food. In addition, the poor quality of the standard U.S. diet -- including high levels of red and processed meat and low levels of fruits and vegetables -- is a major factor in a number of preventable diseases. The U.S. spends $3 trillion on health care every year -- 18 percent of the gross domestic product -- much of it allocated to diseases associated with poor diets.
"This means our estimates are probably very conservative, both in terms of health and climate change implications," Cleveland said. "Just changing half of the diet and including only some of the diseases associated with diets, we found a huge effect.
"Food has a tremendous impact on the environment," he added. "That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well on our health and our health care costs."
That is exactly what the scientists found. The adoption of healthier model diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer and Type 2 diabetes by 20 to 40 percent. Health care costs went down by $77 billion to $93 billion annually and direct greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 222 kilograms to 826 kilograms per person per year.
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