How Eating Habits Affect Health and the Environment: Impact of Dietary Choices

Heather Campbell
 min read

How eating habits affect health is already a well-known subject, but how much do you know besides the basics?

How Eating Habits Affect Health and the Environment: Impact of Dietary ChoicesOver hundreds of thousands of years, a process of natural selection has ensured that our bodies are optimally adapted to our environment.

As a general rule, our diet has evolved in such a way as to being mass produced on a global scale. Chronic conditions like cholesterol and diseases such as cancer are prevalent. Eating local and seasonal plant-based foods has a massive, positive impact on our planet and our well-being.

What we like to eat and what we crave are also a result of that adaptation process. Nature has done her job well.

How eating habits affect health: Introduction

In past millennia, taking in enough energy (and wasting as little as possible) was one of the most important survival factors. Therefore, like other animals, we tend to eat primarily high-energy foods, such as sugar and fats.

From famine to an overabundance

Until after World War II, people were still regularly short of energy, and certain foods were in short supply. But in the meantime, that has turned to abundance.

These days, we can fill our bellies around the clock. We don’t even have to make an effort anymore as microwaved dinners are becoming increasingly popular on supermarket shelves.

Those who want it even easier simply have their meals delivered to their homes. It has never been easier to get food into your belly.

However, it is disconcerting how fast our diet has evolved in the last hundred years. Hundred years may not seem that fast, but it is when compared to the entire evolution of humans.

The fact that we have an overabundance of everything we love to eat is a real first-world problem. In contrast, people are still dying of starvation in other parts of the world.

Think of Adam and Eve from the creation story, who were tempted to eat an apple, and replace that apple with fast food.

The “SAD” Standard American Diet

Here, in a nutshell, is the composition of the Standard American Diet (abbreviated by the telling acronym SAD) or the Western Standard Diet:

  • This diet consists of the nutrients we so crave, produced in the cheapest and most efficient way possible, at least according to the criteria of mass production.
  • Therefore, the result is highly processed, ultra-processed food. During this process, beneficial ingredients are often removed. Various other substances are added to make the final product look more appealing, last longer, and be easier to process.
  • Sugar and fat, for example, are two good enticements for people to perceive a product as tasty. Sugar is added to hundreds of products for precisely that reason.
  • This includes usual suspects such as desserts and sweets and, for example, ketchup and mayonnaise, deli meats, processed vegetables, and just about any ready-to-eat and fast food products.

Consequences of mass production of our food

Aren’t we sacrificing our health, our waistline, and the environment by falling so massively for the discount prices at the supermarket?

Throughout the food chain, people are being exploited to maximize profits for large food multinationals and keep consumers’ prices as low as possible. Examples include:

  • meal delivery drivers in our cities
  • farmers in developing countries
  • illegal migrants who work our fields

The consequences of this policy are increasingly visible, and the picture is not pretty.

These consequences impact the environment, health, and social costs of healthcare.

Impact on the environment

The healthiest food often also has the lowest environmental impact. In simpler terms, you could say that what is good for you is usually good for nature.

Local, fresh, and seasonal products that have not undergone extensive industrial processes are usually a win-win for yourself and the environment. And they are often the most delicious too!

Just taste the difference between a fruit flown over by plane in the middle of winter and one in season from a local farmer.

Try keeping to seasonal produce by hanging a calendar in your kitchen that shows what products are available at which time of year.

Reasons why seasonal food is best

  • There are no heating costs involved in heating greenhouses, nor is there any need to use fertilizers unnecessarily to force the growth process.
  • You reduce the carbon footprint because the products can then come from local producers, which also supports the local economy.
  • Fruits and vegetables are at their best and cheapest when you buy them in the peak season typical of each crop.
  • You live with the seasons and thus better experience the evolution of the seasons. This automatically provides extra variety in your diet as well.

Impact on our health

The most comprehensive recent study on the effect of diet on health is the Global Burden of Disease Study.

This large-scale study, which ran from 1990 to 2017 in 195 countries, looked at the effects of diet on health, among other things.

As a result of risks related to our diets, in 2017 alone, there were as many as 11 million deaths and 255 million DALYs (Disability-Adjusted Life Years, a measure of the total burden created by disease).

Summarized below are the leading causes (annual number of deaths from premature death or severe illness due to unhealthy eating patterns):

  • Not enough fruit: 2,000,000 deaths per year
  • Not enough whole grain: 3,000,000 deaths per year
  • Too much salt: 3,000,000 deaths per year

Thus, people with unhealthy eating habits die earlier. They also lose many healthy years that precede their deaths through various ailments and diseases.

At first, the problems become apparent in the form of precursors to chronic conditions:

  • high blood pressure,
  • inflammation,
  • overweight and obesity, etc.

Then, typical diseases of affluence appear, such as:

Disadvantages of a Western diet

There is broad consensus that the average Western diet has several characteristics that are detrimental to the environment, health, and social cost:

  • Too much meat
  • Not enough whole-grain food
  • Ultra-processed:
    • additives have been added that do not benefit health, for example, to make it attractive and to keep it fresh
    • beneficial ingredients have been removed, such as by refining
  • Not enough fruits and vegetables
  • Presence of trans fats
  • Too much sugar

Animal-sourced versus plant-based diets

Animal food has a significantly greater impact on the environment than plant-based food. Some examples:

  • Animal agribusiness is responsible for as much as 37% of man-made methane (CH4) and 65% of man-made nitrous oxide (N2O).
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the industrial meat sector (18%) are greater than emissions from the transportation sector (13%).

Even animal foods with the lowest environmental impact still score a lot higher than the production of plant-based alternatives. For example, in 2010, beef production alone accounted for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Economic Forum commissioned a study showing that we could prevent millions of deaths each year by replacing meat with non-animal proteins.

Unfortunately, it’s expected the opposite will happen. Namely, the demand for meat is only likely to increase due to the growing population.

Unless we change our behavior on a large scale, which is not impossible. More and more people, especially the younger generation, are aware that it is better to eat less meat.

What about organic food?

We know that organic food already contains fewer contaminants, such as pesticides. If it has any at all, it is often in doses that have no negative effect on our health.

Some studies point to the benefits of organic foods, such as the presence of fewer pesticides and more polyphenols. On the other hand, there could be a greater risk of mold in organic products.

For now, there is no conclusive evidence that organic food is healthier. Still, many consumers intuitively prefer “organic” foods, but this may also be due to other factors:

  • aversion to the operation of the mainstream food industry, which they find unacceptable
  • respect for nature
  • respect for animal welfare

How eating habits affect health: Conclusion

In the Western world, we are fortunate to live in an age with an abundance of food that has never been easier to access, from discount supermarkets to ready-made meals delivered to our homes.

However, the mass production of food at the lowest possible prices comes with consequences for the environment, our health, and the cost of healthcare for society as a whole.

Furthermore, the typical Western diet contains meat, which must be mass-produced. This leads to a substantial environmental impact that can no longer be ignored.

We can make things better by eating less meat and eating more seasonal, whole foods which are not processed and have not traveled halfway around the world to reach us.

However, this needs to happen globally to overturn the disadvantages of the current standard Western diet on our environment and health.

Fortunately, the younger generation seems to start paying attention. It’s essential to realize that we do not have to wait for the next generation to make the change. We can start now. We already know how eating habits affect health so there’s no excuse.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More