‘Pie hole’, colloquial for one’s mouth, is believed to have evolved in the USA in the 1980s from the British expression ‘cake hole’ (coined in the mid 20th century). Pie hole refers to a mouth, as in: Shut your pie hole or, in this case: Put less in your pie hole.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Save the Planet: Eat Healthy

For the final article of the year, I chose a topic that was both future-thinking and hopeful. Environmental sustainability is on the pulse these days, as it should be. But let's tie it in with nutrition and health. The way we eat, what we eat, and how much we eat impacts the environment.

A fascinating new study compared the nationally recommended diet (NRD) with an average diet across 37 nations (this is 64% of the global population.) The environmental focus was greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication (an oversupply of nutrients in an aquatic system causing low oxygen levels, runoff is a common cause), and land use.

A few more details to know about the study:
  • Of the 37 nations investigated, 28 were high-income nations, 9 were middle-income nations (including 2 lower-middle nations - India and Indonesia)
  • NRDs varied by the level of income of the nations
    • High-income nations tend to emphasise increased intake of plants products
      • Mostly because inhabitants of these countries are able to easily and often eat large amounts of Bessie the Cow, fast (nutrient-poor) food, and neglect plant products 
    • Lower-income nations emphasise sufficient caloric and protein intake, recommending high amounts of both
      • Something to note, as transitions occur to diets higher animal and processed food, malnutrition and obesity are likely to coexist (as in many developed countries)
    • Only 4 nations currently mention the environment in their NRD
      • Sweden, The Netherlands, the UK, and China, since you were wondering
In the U.S., compared with the average diet, the NRD recommends substantial decreases in sugars, oils, meats, and dairy. We the people have enough money to make poor food choices and/or eat way too much.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions based on the average diet increased significantly as national income increased. Animal products (meat, fish, and dairy) accounted for 22%, 65%, and 70% of emissions for lower-middle, upper-middle, and high-income nations, respectively.

Translation = large amounts of animal products consumed in upper-middle and high-income nations are costly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Think of all the animal farts, and resources like water, feed, and land needed to keep the animals alive and farting.

Diet Shifts
Shifting from average diets to the NRD had the greatest environmental impact in high-income nations. Further beneficial impacts were noted if calorie intake decreased (this makes sense, because eating too much wastes resources, a whole article about that here.) Certain nations that emphasise vegetables, nuts, and dairy would see increased environmental impact. But in general, decreases in the consumption of meat and dairy would result in significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, and land use in all but 3 lower-income countries (India, Indonesia, Romania.)

Translation = Nationally, if people ate the amounts and types of foods recommended (yes, meaning calories and food groups) we would not only be healthier, but also decrease our environmental footprint. We don't make up the dietary guidelines for our health.


So, are any of you thinking, "well, if more people were vegetarian or vegan, things might be even better?" That's a really interesting statement. Another recent study examined how suitable, in terms of nutritional adequacy, human diets are with and without animals. Here were some interesting findings:
  • Protein, many microminerals, vitamins, and amino acids are consumed in excess in the average American diet
    • However, certain vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids were deficient:
      • Calcium, vitamin K, vitamin D, choline, linoleic, and a-linolenic acid
      • Mostly because we choose to buy and eat large amounts of processed, nutrient poor-foods
    • Protein provided 171% of what is actually required, and excess energy (calories) was about 12% above the needs for moderately active humans (remember, many Americans are not moderately active)
  • In the plant-only food system, consumption of grains increased 10-fold, and all other food types declined
    • Calcium, vitamins A and B12, EPA, DHA, and arachidonic acid were deficient in the plant-only diet
Previous research shows plant-only diets are associated with greater deficiencies in protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, and also tend to be higher in sugar, and lower in essential micronutrients. Deficiencies from plant-only diets increase as one takes into account the lower bioavailability of certain nutrients (iron, zinc, protein, and vitamin A) from plant foods. Therefore not improving nutritional quality or health (1, 2, 3, 4.) So, once again herbivory ≠ omnipotency.


The above study eloquently points out that unsupplemented, carefully planned, plant-only diets can meet nutritional needs, however, meeting these needs for an entire population poses many challenges.

How to eat more sustainably: The takeaway... 
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables
  • Eat less meat (still eat Bessie the Cow, just a couple of times a week, and less of her...AKA smaller portions, here's what a "serve" looks like)
  • Watch your protein intake. No, you actually do not need as much as you think (read about that here and here, seriously... do it.)
  • Be cognisant of eating too much... Not overeating is not only beneficial for your waistline and your wallet, but also for the environment
  • How to do this: think about your meals, add fruit to your breakfast, add (more) vegetables to your snacks and other meals... You'll feel more full and therefore eat less meat/grains... Good for your colon, good for your weight, good for the environment, and cheaper... Yes cheaper!