Small Dietary Changes Could Bring Big Environmental Gains

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Good news, everyone: Doing better for your body, your wallet, and the planet may not require an all-kale diet. Experts writing in the journal Climatic Change say that small changes like avoiding processed meat could save billions of dollars in healthcare costs and help us reach crucial environmental protection goals.

It’s no secret that the standard American diet is harmful. Our consumption of saturated fats, red meats, and refined sugars has been linked to rising rates of heart disease and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Growing and preparing these foods also takes a huge toll on the environment, producing around 30 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions every year.

But a complete dietary overhaul is just not an option for many people. Processed foods are more accessible, longer-lasting, and often cheaper than fresh food. Telling Americans to “just eat healthier” is not going to solve our problems.

Small changes, on the other hand, might be doable. So researchers at UC Santa Barbara decided to calculate potential benefits—not of an entire nation going vegan or only buying local food, but of what might happen if we all took just a few baby steps toward healthier eating.

They pulled data from previous studies on diet, greenhouse gas emissions, disease, and healthcare costs to create a baseline. Then they built theoretical models of new diets, some with lower amounts of red and processed meat and some with none at all. To make up for the now-missing calories, they added more fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas. They replaced some, but not all, white flour with whole grain alternatives. They didn’t cut added sugar, dairy, eggs, fish, or non-red meat.

They then fed their new diet models into the formulas used to calculate the baseline to see if there was any difference in the outcome. There certainly was. Simply making little changes had an enormous impact in every category.

The results showed that cutting back or eliminating red and processed meat could reduce Americans’ relative risk for coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes by as much as 40 percent. They could save the country $77 billion (or more) in healthcare costs and reduce each person’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 500 pounds per year.

“Food has a tremendous impact on the environment,” study director David Cleveland said in a statement. “That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well as on our health and our health care costs.”