3 Simple Science-Backed Ways to Eat Healthier For Yourself and the Planet

There are multiple benefits to healthy eating. You feel better both mentally and physically, and if you play your cards right, you might also live longer. But did you know that eating healthier is usually also better for the environment? From the types of food we eat, to where we buy our food, and how we prepare and store it at home, every step of the food production process has some environmental impact, whether low or high. Most often, the simpler the process involved in acquiring and preparing our food, the better it is for us, and the better it is for the planet as well. Below are some simple steps you can take to eat better food while knowing that you’re making personal choices that positively impact huge public health issues such as climate change, obesity, and even global pandemics. And while all of this may sound daunting, the best choices are often those that harken back to the days of our great-grandmothers, when we grew our own food, knew our farmers, and stored food for the winter.

Grow Your Own Food

Gardening has a myriad of health benefits including improved mental well-being, increased physical activity, and a reduction in social isolation. Getting a regular dose of sunshine helps your body make vitamin D, which builds bones and boosts immunity. Plants benefit from more time in the sun, as well. Produce picked at the peak of ripeness has a higher nutritional value. Sunshine is what gives herbs their flavor and fruits their sweetness, so it tastes better, too. And we all know there’s nothing better than a homegrown tomato on a warm summer evening. What’s even sweeter is that growing your own produce is good for the environment, too. It’s estimated that produce travels 1,500 miles (aka “food miles”) before it gets to your plate. To prevent damage and spoilage during shipment, produce must be picked while still green and sprayed with chemicals to ripen it.

At the community level, the recent Covid gardening boom demonstrated how growing food in our backyards was an excellent tool for building community resilience. At a time when supply chain disruptions and rising unemployment increased food insecurity worldwide, gardening remained an economical and viable way to put food on the table.

Working in the garden became one of the ways we could get outside while staying at home, and it also meant fewer trips to the grocery store during lockdown. It became the perfect hobby to engage in with our kids. When remote schooling became the norm, they could learn how to be self-sufficient while still being engaged in hands-on learning. Taking study breaks to help mom and dad plant seeds or pick tomatoes meant a welcome opportunity to get outside for fresh air, together time, and some “soil therapy.”

If you’re new to gardening, start small with one or two vegetables and watch how quickly your interest grows. Tomatoes and cucumbers are versatile in recipes and easy for beginners. For gardeners in their 3rd or 4th season, a super helpful tool to plan your garden is the Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner. They offer a 7-day free trial, which if you already know what you’d like to plant, is enough time to try it out for a growing season.

Growing your own food also means you have control of other chemical inputs like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which have been linked to a host of common human diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Not surprisingly, these chemicals are also harmful to the plants and animals that live in our soils, inhibiting its ability to store and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. And CO2 released into the atmosphere contributes to — you guessed it — climate change. Climate change is one of those giant global health issues that feels insurmountable. But bringing farming practices back to more sustainable methods holds a lot of promise for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, reversing the damage we’ve already done. Check out the Netflix film Kiss the Ground if you want to learn more.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” ~ Michael Pollan

Know Your Farmer

Another way to reduce food miles and keep money circulating in your community (which is good for the local economy!) is to buy your food from local farmers. Similar to gardening, buying directly from the farmer means you’re buying whole, unprocessed food that hasn’t traveled long distances or lost a significant amount of nutrients before it makes it to your plate. If you know your farmer, you can find out valuable information like whether or not their cows are raised on a grass-fed diet or if their produce is organically grown. And caring about where your food comes from gives you a sense of pride and appreciation for what you’re putting into your body. The best place to meet your farmers is at your local farmers’ market, or, simply research your local farms online.

Buying quality meat and pork in bulk is an economical way to get food that would normally be higher priced in the grocery aisle. If you have a deep freezer, you can purchase whole sections of an animal directly from local farmers; for instance, a quarter cow can feed a family of two for a full year. Another way to support local farms is to purchase an annual community-supported agriculture share. These provide both a better value to you and economic security to the farmer. Plus, every week you get farm-fresh produce delivered directly to your door. You can usually find out on the farm’s website the types of produce you can expect in a weekly share. Another fun new service is Misfits Market, which offers discounted, slightly less-than-perfect, organic produce from regional farms.

If you don’t buy produce directly from your farmer, or can’t afford to always buy certified organic, you can prioritize when it’s most important to choose organic options using the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists, which are updated annually to reflect the latest science. These lists are compiled based on lab testing to identify trends in agricultural pesticide use.

Another good general rule of thumb is if you have to peel the produce before you eat it, you’re less likely to be exposed to pesticides than if you have to eat the peel. And “what’s the best way to wash your fruits and veggies,” you ask? A 10% salt solution or straight vinegar. That’s another tip from Grandma.

If you eat a healthy diet, you can also feel good knowing that the latest research is telling us that traditionally “healthy” foods also happen to be good for the planet (see below graphic, the foods in the lower left are better for both health and the environment). Seems a little too easy, right? But it’s true. On the whole, choosing diets higher in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and high-quality meats have a lower environmental impact. It’s truly a win-win. You have the power to vote and make change with your dollar (pun intended), so use it wisely!

Foods that are good for health are also good for the environment

Guardian graphic. Source: Clark et al, PNAS, 2019. Note: Foods linked to a statistically significant change in mortality risk are denoted by solid circles. Those not linked are denoted by open circles.

Being adventurous and choosing farms that grow foods you’re not accustomed to can be a fun and creative way to explore new foods and try new recipes with your family. And sitting around the table as a family to enjoy your home-cooked meal is one of the best ways to prevent teens from engaging in activities like smoking, drinking, or using illicit drugs. For that reason alone, it’s well worth the time invested to find ways to bond around the kitchen table.

Store Food for the Winter

So now that you know how to get the best and healthiest available foods, what do you do during the winter months? Heavily processed foods are usually higher in calories but lower in nutritional value; think things like rice, grains, and cereals. And the cans themselves are often lined with substances like BPA, a type of plastic that has been linked to chronic, widespread diseases like diabetes and heart disease. If you have to buy cans, try to choose those labeled BPA-free or better yet, opt for food stored in more natural containers, such as glass jars.

Two very popular ways to preserve your food include canning and freezing, Learning how to can takes a little bit of time, but there are ample resources online for those interested. Another alternative is to freeze your food, which is a little bit easier but requires cold storage. Store food in Ziploc bags and they will keep for years! Just remember to always cool your food before storing it, to reduce the leaching of plastic into the food.

Learning how to preserve your own food can be incredibly empowering. In an emergency, you always have food on hand. It also ensures that in the winter months you can continue to reap the benefits of food that was harvested at the peak of freshness. You can preserve food that you grow in your own garden or you can stock up at the farmers’ market when produce is relatively cheap and higher in nutrient value. And again, by storing your own food, you’re cutting down on food miles, decreasing chemical inputs, and feeding your body the best available nutrition. There’s nothing quite like tasting fresh vegetables in the middle of winter.

“Grandma put it all in a jar.” ~Greg Brown

Grandma Was Green

Compared to the times when our grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived, people today have a lot on their plates. With all of the modern demands on our time, including full-time jobs/traffic/kids/menu planning, etc., it’s not surprising that we’ve learned to rely on highly processed, ready-made foods packaged neatly in single-use plastic. Finding time amidst the commotion of daily life to eat healthily and save the planet can feel daunting. But if we prioritize learning to grow, buy, and prepare simple, whole foods, we can learn to tread lightly on the planet while enriching our own lives and improving our health at the same time… the way nature, and Grandma, intended.

A nurse connecting the dots between human health & the environment.