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Health & Climate | 3 common foods that are harmful to the environment (& 3 healthy alternatives!)

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Intercrop Bean planting, early teak plantations Nicaforest, Nicaragua.

The importance of a sustainable diet

Rapid population growth, international economic development, and changing diets have exponentially increased demand for the three most important pillars of sustainability: food, water, and energy.

Furthermore, as countries all around the world become more urbanized, demand for these pillars is becoming increasingly more interlinked. Food production represents one of the most evident examples of this interlinked demand for unsustainable practices-- with this industry being the largest consumer of the world’s water resources. Over 70% of all water withdrawals are used by agriculture, compared to only 16% by municipalities for households and services, and 12% by industries.

Going by the current practices that stunt this industry’s potential for sustainability and contribute greatly to the warming of our planet; change in how and what we consume is necessary if we are to significantly decrease the effects of climate change.

Agriculture, unlike the energy industry, is greatly driven by demand and most importantly, choice. We choose our diets--whether that is due to personal preference or financial reasons--which means that individual action can lead to forcing change at a macro level. If demand for red meat decreases and customers instead opt for plant-based alternatives, the food industry will be forced to adapt in order to match the demands of the modern sustainably-conscious customer.

We understand, however, how disheartening it can be to not know where to begin. Which foods contribute the most emissions in their production cycles? How do I know which alternative has the smallest footprint? After all, this information is not made overtly clear in the packaging of food at the grocery store. This is why we are here to help you change your diet and help enact change that will benefit your health in addition to the environment as a whole!

Interesting in learning more about how a positive impact on the environment can result in a positive impact on health?

Check out this example of how the Nicaforest project fosters food security in the region through high-impact carbon sequestration.

Below are the top three most harmful foods for the environment, and their healthiest, environmentally friendly alternatives!

1. Red meat (alternative: fish)

Global health and climate experts recommend that red meat consumption should be limited to around 90g per person, per day in order to reduce the considerable emissions inherently attached to the meat industry. Fossil fuel burning, animal methane, water, and land consumption, and many other aspects of this industry contribute to its significant carbon footprint.

Watershed in protected areas managed by Nicaforest (Nicaragua)
Fostering sustainable watershed management is essential to ensure the health of marine wildlife, and Nicaforest is proud to foster ecosystems such as the one above!

The current international average is 226g per person, per day. If you want to replace beef altogether, white-fleshed fish is an excellent alternative. Serving as an exceptional protein source, fish provides under 3 grams of fat, around 20–25 grams of protein, and 85–130 calories per 100-gram serving.

The health benefits of simply reducing--not entirely renouncing--your red meat intake are vast. Two decades-long studies conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health unequivocally found that there is a clear link between red meat consumption and mortality. Several life-threatening diseases are directly related to disproportionate and sustained life-long red meat consumption. In the words of Dr. Walter Willett, one of the senior scientists that conducted the study, "Nothing is guaranteed, but this is putting the odds in your favor".

2. Cheese (alternative: feta, brie, mozzarella)

Unfortunately for the many who enjoy dairy products, cheese relies heavily on cows that release large amounts of methane, which has an enormous negative impact on the environment--25 times higher than carbon dioxide to be precise.

This means that the more milk is needed to make cheese, the worse it is for the environment. If cutting the product entirely is not an option, there are many different types of cheeses that require fewer liters of milk to produce, thus cutting down on the related emissions. As for health benefits, researchers at Harvard also found that dairy fat was not associated with a higher risk of significant heart disease. They did, however, find that replacing only about 5 percent of your daily calories from dairy fat with a similar amount of unsaturated fat from vegetables was related to a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Choosing the right diet can achieve a positive impact on your health, and do so in a way that also benefits that of the environment.

Interested in learning more about how a positive impact on the environment can result in a positive impact on health?

Check out this example of how the Nicaforest project fosters food security in the region through high-impact carbon sequestration.

3. Chocolate (alternative: Fair Trade dark chocolate)

Although it is seemingly everybody’s favorite dessert, the chocolate industry is unfortunately often associated with profoundly negative impacts on the environment. According to research published by the World Economic Forum, this industry is responsible for the reduction of many rainforests around the world primarily due to highly unsustainable practices, in addition to generating a large carbon footprint significantly contributing to climate change.

Intercrop bean planting on Nicaforest teak plantations. (Food Security)
Intercrop bean planting as pictured above fosters food security for the community surrounding the Nicaforest project.

Though there may not be quite an inversely beneficial alternative and swearing off chocolate seems to be infinitely difficult (from personal experience), there are steps you can take to make sure you reduce your personal footprint from indulging in this sweet treat.

For example, you can opt to purchase only from Fair Trade brands, thus ensuring that you are not contributing to multi-billion-dollar companies that exploit workers and land with little to no regard for the sustainability of their practices.

Once enough customers choose sustainably sourced products, the chocolate industry will be forced to adapt in order to appeal to modern customers.

Voting with your wallet is the best way to incentivize change, take charge of your role as a consumer, and make your voice heard as a customer.

Your choices define your impact

These tips won’t drastically improve your overall fitness and well-being overnight, but they are sure to make a positive impact on your health in the long run; not to mention help you reduce your carbon footprint.

Taking the decision to make changes to your diet for the benefit of yourself and that of the environment is a fantastic personal commitment to sustainable development. If you want to take that commitment one step further, high-impact carbon credits are a great way to mitigate those unavoidable emissions. If you choose to support high-impact projects such as Nicaforest, your commitment to sustainability can achieve a positive impact on our climate, community, and environment.

Looking for high-impact carbon credits? Check out the Nicaforest high-impact reforestation project and learn more about how mitigating emissions can achieve an impact beyond carbon.

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