Nutritious foods have lower environmental impact, study finds

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Widespread adaptation of healthier diets would markedly reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and food production, according to new research from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Oxford University in England, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The report concludes that foods with positive health outcomes have among the lowest environmental impacts, while other foods, such as red meat, can be harmful. The researchers explored how consuming 15 different food groups is, on average, associated with five different health outcomes and five aspects of environmental degradation.

Results show that almost all foods associated with improved health outcomes (e.g., whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil) have the lowest environmental impacts. Likewise, foods with the largest increases in disease risks, primarily unprocessed and processed red meat, are consistently associated with the largest negative environmental impacts.

The two notable exceptions are fish, a generally healthier food with moderate environmental impacts, and sugar-sweetened beverages, which pose health risks but have a low environmental impact, according to the study.

Researchers concluded that transitioning diets toward greater consumption of healthier foods would also improve environmental sustainability.

The study underscores recent recommendations from the United Nations (UN) and others about the environmental impacts of human diets. An August report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended individuals eat more plant-based foods to adapt to and limit worsening climate change.

"This study shows that replacing red meat with more nutritious options can greatly improve health and the environment," said Jason Hill, PhD, bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences in a statement. "It's important that all of us think about the health impacts of the foods we eat. We now know that making our nutrition a priority will pay dividends for the Earth as well."