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Eco-nutrition: Why Plant Dietary Choices Aren’t Always Ecologically Sustainable

This article is part of a new series on Eco-Nutrition: integrating nutrition choices with ecological sustainability. For the introduction on the series read “Eco-Nutrition on Earth Day”.

Our eco-nutrition global question: “How to combine good nutrition and protection of our precious environment?”

Vegetables

Your plant diet might be healthier for your body but not healthy for the environment

Some food for thought or should it be ‘plants’ for thought?

By thinking of both nutrition and the environment let’s take a look at where we get our plant, seeds and legumes from. Our choices? Either we eat local or eat plant foods grown ‘away’; grown in our home country or foreign countries. Eating locally grown plant foods does not always provide all of our nutritional needs and we often need to purchase plant foods grown elsewhere. For ideal health and nutrition, eating from plants that are high in phytonutrients is a good objective. But where are these phytonutrients and plants grown?

Benefits of a plant diet

There are health benefits of a vegetarian or high plant-eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet. The vegetarian or high plant diet should be balanced and varied, containing enough healthy proteins and fats. A healthy vegetable based diet can provide these health benefits:

  • lower blood cholesterol
  • lower risk of heart disease
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower risk of type 2 diabetes
  • lower risk of obesity
  • lower overall cancer rates

Are you following a vegan or vegetarian diet for personal values such as protection and love of animals? Thinking of environmental choices is not easy to blend with dietary choices, especially as a vegan who may live in a country which doesn’t grow high amounts of varied local foods.

If you are adding the environment to your personal values, I believe it is important to know where we get our plant foods and make the best ecological choices to protect our earth for future generations.

How to choose ecologically sustainable plants for our diet

  • Choose local plant foods first
  • Eat plant-based foods in season
  • Know what countries the purchased plant foods come from
  • Choose plant foods from countries and farming methods that promote ecologically sustainable methods
  • What am I missing?

Why does the country where the plants are grown affect the environment?

There are countries that do large-scale environmental changes to produce foods for global market. An example is the deforestation practices in Brazil to produce palm oil and soya. Brazil is not the only country with these type of big land clearings but is an example of what is happening worldwide. Here is an article on soya and deforestation in Brazil to explain more on foods choices for palm oil and soya. This is an example of how demand for certain food products can lead to environmental destruction. Furthermore, certain ‘power nutrition’ plants that contain phytonutrients and phytochemicals in high doses are grown far away or are put in nutrition supplements that are not ecologically sustainable. For example, Gogi berries and papaya are high in phytonutrients, but may travel far to get to our plate or nutrition supplement.

Sometimes eating local is not always the best choice for the environment

I thought it is always best to eat local. It turns out that this is not always true. Read “Myths and Realities on Eating Local” for more information on making the best environmental choices and eating local. I add this link here because it helps add a global picture on where our food comes from.

Call to Action

Making the right nutrition and environment choices requires research. My call to action is to be aware, (something I wasn’t before) that the plant products we purchase can come from countries or sources that do not practice good environmental choices. This includes choices of nutrition phytochemical and phytonutrient supplements available on the market. We can potentially eat balanced and healthy by eating local and in season or by adding some foods purchased from countries and companies that practice good ecological sustainabilty. It is a personal choice and not something that always clear on what is the right balance. Awareness and knowledge help make nutrition and environmental choices that we are comfortable with.

If there is more to this story that I haven’t mentioned or if you have comments, feedback or have thoughts on a plant diet and the environment, please add them to the “leave a reply” section below. Thanks for your continued support on this important subject.

Mary

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8 Responses to Eco-nutrition: Why Plant Dietary Choices Aren’t Always Ecologically Sustainable

  1. Chris June 17, 2012 at 18:46 #

    I applaud you for calling attention to the need for research into other countries’ policies on food production when trying to make the right nutrition choices when one is concerned about not only the environment, but also human and animal rights. However, I think the title of this article is very mis-leading (not sure how much you had to do with that).

    For example, the reference you gave on deforestation in Brazil states that this is primarily happening due to increased demand for MEAT (“The main products derived from soybeans are soy meal (the world’s main oil meal for animal feed) and soy oil (the world’s most consumed vegetable oil). Only a small part of the global harvest is processed as whole bean for human consumption, mostly in Asia. The growing demand for cattle feed in Europe has driven the production of soybean, but recently also by a growing market in China for the production of oil.”), and oil used for a variety of purposes (“Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from oil palm. It is the world’s second most consumed edible oil (after soy), and has a huge range of uses –from shampoo to chips to frozen foods to cosmetics.”).

    Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet is not the primary cause of environmental problems, in fact, quite the opposite is true, as evidenced by some of the very references you cited.

    • mbrighton June 17, 2012 at 23:48 #

      Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your input on the eco-nutrition article on plant diet and the ecological impacts.
      The article is one on a series one eco-nutrition. For the full list of articles that have been published and what is coming, you can see this link: Econutrition-Good Nutrition Choices with Ecological Sustainability
      You can see in this linked article the different articles coming on the series for eco-nutrition. One will be published this summer on meat and fish and the ecological views on a meat based diet. Yes, meat based diets are worse for the environment than a plant-based diet. I wrote the article on plant-based diets first.
      I am changing the title of this article to “Why Plant Dietary Choices Are Not Always Ecologically Sustainable.” I do not like to mislead readers through a title, although of course, interesting titles always bring more readers (and more readers mean more awareness on subjects close to my heart).
      I have also changed the reference that I put in the article because although it was accurate, it is not the message I was trying to shout out. I did read articles about deforestation and I have replaced this reference with another more ‘simplier’ one. You can see it in the article.
      My message I was trying to portray is that (as with everything we buy and especially with the food we consume) we must be aware of what /where /how we are buying from. I believe there are those who follow a vegetarian or high plant based diet without realizing that some of the food they are buying may come from non ecological situations or have traveled very far to get to the grocery store/their plate. This may be especially true in the UK where there are a lot of vegetarians and due to the climate in the United Kingdom, vegetarians must purchase plant proteins/grains that are not grown in the UK.
      Personally I am not a vegetarian, but have a high plant based diet. I was not fully aware before I wrote the article that some of the food choices I made were not ecological or came from countries that did not practice good environmental standards.

      That is why I did list out in the article as a priority: buy local, buy in season and to be aware of what you eat and buy.
      I did assume that most people realize that a meat based diet is less ecological. For sure, stating that a plant based diet is not ecological is not the message that I wanted to pass along. I didn’t write about the use of palm oil and soya being used in non food products because this website is primarily nutrition related and I wanted to keep the message food-health related and short.
      I appreciate your feedback and hope you read the articles coming on meat & fish and also on GMOs. I am not an expert and welcome all opinions. My goal is to try to open the eyes of the public for certain health topics and I am not an expert in this field of eco-nutrition, an emerging an interesting area of nutrition.
      Let me know if you have any questions/comments.

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