Small Food Choices Can Make a Big Difference, New Research Shows

The Energy Mix
 Woman shopping for food - U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Aug. 29, 2021

Recent studies measuring potential health and environmental benefits from strategic dietary changes have found that modest shifts in consumption patterns can significantly reduce the global footprint of food production.

“Just 10% of the average calorie intake is responsible for over a third of the average dietary footprint,” writes Medical News Today. “By substituting this and the most harmful dietary items, people could benefit their health and the environment,” 

One study, published in Nature Food, analyzed the impacts of more than 5,800 food choices. “The researchers found that plant-based foods generally outperform animal products environmentally and health-wise,” notes Medical News Today. “However, factors such as water use might necessitate trade-offs between healthy foods and those that do not damage the environment.” 

Some details in that study could help consumers understand the long-term effects of their dietary choices. A hot dog, for example, could reduce one’s lifespan by 36 minutes, and processed beef can have four times the carbon footprint of poultry. Based on these measurements, the researchers ranked the foods in a “traffic light system” of green, amber, and red to signify high benefits, fewer benefits, and adverse effects.

“We hope these approaches can make this information more accessible and empower individuals to make small or even big changes to their diet that can lead to a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle,” study lead author Katerina Stylianou told Medical News Today.

Another study, also published in Nature Food, supports the claim that informed, targeted dietary changes can greatly reduce the global footprint of food production. The research assesses China’s 2015 “Potato as Staple Food” policy, which proposes increasing the portion of potatoes in Chinese staple crop consumption from 6% to 30%.

The study found that the potato policy could “reduce the total carbon–land–water impacts of staple crops by 17 to 25% by 2030.” They also found that a greater dietary reliance on potatoes can reduce the total land used to produce staple crops by 17%.

“Potatoes have several agronomic benefits over other staple crops,” writes Carbon Brief in its coverage of the study. “They are more drought-resistant and more geographically adaptable, making them more resistant to a changing climate.” 

The study notes several possible drawbacks to the potato policy, such as greater perishability compared to staple grains. An increase in potato production without an associated increase in consumption could also result in higher rice imports, which would offset the potential environmental benefits. An answer, said the study authors, could be to promote potatoes “across the entire food supply chain from production to consumption” by adding them to pre-made foods like noodles and buns.

[Top photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr]