Small dietary changes can improve human and environmental health

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New research is assessing the impact on human and environmental health of various foods. FG Commerce / Getty Images
  • The researchers created a “traffic light system” to organize food according to its impact on health and the environment.
  • Their results suggest that small, targeted food substitutions offer significant health and environmental benefits.
  • The researchers hope their new approach will enable individuals to make dietary changes that lead to healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.

Food choices affect both the environment and human health.

Eating too much unhealthy food and too little healthy food are the main causes of the health burden in the United States. A to study found that in 2017, dietary factors contributed to 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years worldwide.

What we eat also has an impact on the environment by influencing food production, which affects land use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Research has suggested that food systems have environmental limits. A to study found that, under current conditions, the planet’s food system can only provide 43% of the world’s population, or 3.4 billion people, with a balanced diet.

Another to study found that if we do not embrace technological changes and prevention strategies, our food system will exceed planetary limits safe for humanity by 2050.

Simultaneously quantifying the health and environmental risk factors of different foods could help decision makers, food producers and consumers make food choices that benefit both human health and the environment.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Michigan and Victor L Fulgoni of Nutrition Impact, LLC, created a scale that combines the environmental impact of foods with their health effects to help consumers improve their dietary health while protecting the environment.

Among their findings, they found that just 10% of the average calorie intake is responsible for more than a third of the average food footprint. By substituting this and the more harmful food products, people could benefit their health and the environment.

The population knows some of the general trends, [such as] carrots are better than red meat for health and the environment, ”said Olivier Jolliet, Ph.D., lead author of the article and professor of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health. University of Michigan. Medical News Today, “Putting numbers and quantifying these differences is important and informative in two directions. “

“First: numbers have the power to [make] future effects […] more realistic and bring them to our current consciousness, ie, “Oh 36 minutes wasted by hot dog, that’s substantial… like two cigarettes, do I really want that?” “, he added.

“Second: these results help identify what really matters and differentiate […] between foods that we should avoid like beef and processed meat, [and] foods like dairy or poultry, which may not be ideal but have [a] Four times [the] lower carbon footprint and are close to neutral, even slightly beneficial for health, ”he concluded.

The new search appears in Natural food.

Researchers identified 5,853 foods consumed by American adults from the What We Eat in America 2011-2016 database. They then used the Nutritional Health Index (HENI) to calculate the health of each food.

HENI quantifies food safety by showing the minutes of healthy living gained or lost through consumption. The model calculates the minutes of life lost or gained from the correlations between certain foods and negative health effects.

“Some of the dietary risks that we considered in HENI are mediated by other lifestyle listings, and we took that into account,” said lead author Dr. Katerina Stylianou, who conducted the research in as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said MNT.

“For example, the risk of polyunsaturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids is measured by[daily calorie intake as a percentage], we therefore considered physical activity as an adjustment factor for the dietary risk factor. For sugary drinks, the risk is mediated by [body mass index]. Likewise, the effect of sodium on health is stratified by race and state of hypertension, ”she added.

The researchers divided the foods into 48 different categories and selected the most popular among them that were closest to each group’s median HENI scores for further analysis. They also considered seven additional foods representing different dishes.

In total, the researchers selected 167 foods for further analysis, or roughly 27% of the average American’s daily calorie intake.

They then used IMPACT World +, a method to assess the life cycle impact of foods, along with assessments of water use and damage to human health, to calculate the environmental footprint of each food. .

Since the correlations between nutritional and environmental impacts were generally weak, the researchers organized the foods in a traffic light system based on their effect on one or the other factor.

Green indicates foods that are both nutritionally and environmentally beneficial, including:

  • nuts
  • fruits
  • some seafood
  • whole grains
  • vegetables
  • legumes

Amber indicates foods that are slightly nutritionally or environmentally harmful, such as:

  • most poultry
  • dairy products, including milk and yogurt
  • cooked grains
  • egg foods
  • cooked grains
  • greenhouse vegetables

Red indicates foods that have significant negative environmental or nutritional impacts, such as:

  • processed meat
  • beef
  • pork
  • Lamb
  • sugary drinks
  • cheese foods
  • some salmon dishes

Researchers have found that plant-based foods generally outperform animal products in terms of the environment and health. However, factors such as water use may require trade-offs between healthy foods and those that do not harm the environment.

The researchers note that their traffic light system arises from statistical risks to life expectancy based on the average diet and, therefore, by itself, may not reflect individual dietary needs.

“Relative trends are likely to be similar from one individual to another and indicate the right decisions,” Jolliet said, “But of course we cannot predict what will happen for a single individual, being since these increases in life expectancy are statistical risks which are valid for a large number of people.

Going forward, the researchers plan to use their findings to create personalized eating plans, both based on personal preference and budget, as well as the risk of underlying disease or health issues.

“We are planning to create a series of optimal food baskets [or] the regimes that […] let individuals choose […] their food personalized according to their tastes, their preferences, their budget ”, specifies Jolliet. “That’s the beauty – that there is no such thing as a healthy and sustainable diet, but [there are] still a lot of choice, preferences and freedom. For this, we would be very interested to collaborate with […] food distributors to inform their customers, possibly via a personalized application.

“We could also target more foods linked to specific diseases [for at-risk individuals], or on the contrary, ignore [some factors based on individual needs such as] sodium if [high blood pressure] is not a problem for any given person, ”he added.

The researchers conclude that small, targeted food substitutions offer significant health and environmental benefits.

However, a limitation to their research is that while HENI includes risk-outcome associations, it is not exhaustive and, therefore, the model is expected to evolve as new epidemiological research emerges.

The researchers also note that dietary risk factors per gram of food can vary across countries, age groups and genders. For example, they found that dietary risk factors, such as minutes of life lost per gram of fruit or sodium, are twice as high in the United States as in Switzerland.

“While HENI is a nutritional assessment model with multiple factors taken into account, the final food score is measured in minutes, […] an easy-to-understand metric, ”said Stylianou. “In addition, classifying foods in a traffic-type system (red, amber, green) based on their nutritional and environmental performance makes recommendations simpler and easier to follow.”

“We hope that these approaches can make this information more accessible and allow individuals to make small or even big changes to their diet that can lead to a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle,” she concluded. .

“This research highlights the complexity of considering nutrition and the environment at the same time,” Timothy Griffin, Ph.D., associate professor and division chair of Agriculture, Food and Environment Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at the ‘Tufts University, which was not involved in the study, said MNT.

“For example, they note that ‘the correlations between nutritional and environmental impacts are weak.’ They bring an additional nuance by focusing only on environmental impacts – substituting one food for another can be beneficial for the climate but use more water (this is the case with certain vegetables and fruits, for example) ”, a he continued.

“It’s important to continue to consider how we choose foods, including replacing one food with another in our diet. They illustrated this with examples of how even small changes can benefit both nutrition and health. [the environment]”, Concluded Dr. Griffin.


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