Your body and the planet

"Every day, thousands of innocent plants are killed by vegetarians. Help end the violence. Eat bacon." This would be painfully funny if we thought this were true. And if pigs had a say, I'm pretty sure they would readily just volunteer the vegetables in their stead.

But as with any joke, it works because it strikes a chord in these dangerous times of the climate crisis. It is dangerous for two obvious reasons. The more obvious one is due to the glaring facts which include but sadly are not limited to rapid melting of ice in the poles, longer droughts, over 50% of the loss of life's variety, and urbanization of half the planet. The less obvious reason why these times are extremely dangerous is that the only species who is responsible for this and who can turn the tide do not even agree that these are facts or are too overwhelmed to think how to solve or worse, simply do not care.

If we know and accept that the planet and all life is at risk, then it would be obligatory for each of us to see what can be done to give us a chance to reverse the course. The joke above highlights the confusion in everyday decisions that we make particularly on what to eat. With all the explosion of information about what is good for our bodies, including well-funded ads on supplements that we do not need or are even dangerous for our health, what is the consensus now on what is good for you?

An enlightening study that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes it very clear – there are food groups that are really good for your health and are good for the planet too.

In the study, tens of millions of individuals were tracked in various countries around the world as to the patterns in the food they ate and the associated reductions in identified risks for death, coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and stroke. It categorized their dietary patterns according to 15 food groups and looked at their health effects.

It revealed that across the food groups, 7 food groups – nuts, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish – reduce the health risk of individuals. But additional servings of dairy, egg, and chicken – more than what is required daily – increase the health risks mentioned. And as many other studies have shown, sugary drinks are associated with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Red meat (processed and unprocessed) is consistently linked with all the 5 diseases.

In terms of the environmental impacts of all the 15 food groups that we eat, there are very large differences. The study looked at the impact of producing these foods in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), land use, acidification, and eutrophication.

The study revealed that in terms of the water required which also considered how scarce water has become, there are not much differences across the food groups except for unprocessed red meat which had double the environmental impact. Vegetables (as the pigs in our opening joke would have told you) have the least environmental impact across all indicators, even with additional servings.

Minimally processed plant source foods, olive oil, and sugar-sweetened beverages came up to yield the lowest environmental impacts for all indicators. Dairy, eggs, fish, and chicken have relative environmental impacts that range widely for GHGs, acidification, eutrophication, and land use. Fish stands out here as being good for our body, but the way we have fished our seas and transformed lakes and mangroves into fish farms make for a special case.

A serving of unprocessed red meat has the highest impact for all 5 environmental indicators, with a relative environmental impact ranging from 16 to 230. And a serving of processed red meat has the second highest mean impact on acidification, GHG emissions, and land use, and the third highest mean impact for eutrophication.

Combining the health risks and benefits of the food groups with their environmental impact, the study revealed that meat, as we produce it now, is definitely not going to help us save us from ourselves. This is because a serving of unprocessed and processed red meats has environmental impacts 10 to 100 times larger than those of plant source foods.

Vegetables are in no conspiracy to get you to eat them. And so are cows, pigs, or chickens. Humans are. What we take in, we take from nature. Free lunch is the mother of all fake news, but there are stark differences between the kinds of foods we eat in terms of what they do to our body and to the planet.

You do not need to dismiss this kind of scientific data as "nosebleed" because you only have to remember this insight every time you have to make a decision on what to eat: what is good for your body (nuts, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish) is good for the planet. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.