Our food choices shape our agricultural systems, from policy to funding and beyond. This month’s Food X interview features a conversation between the Center’s own Mark Rifkin — a senior food and agriculture policy specialist and registered dietician — and Cole Adam, a well-known registered dietitian specializing in chronic disease prevention and environmental sustainability.
Read on to learn about the link between a healthy diet and a healthy planet — plus one of my favorite plant-based recipes and an opportunity to take action.
Mark Rifkin: What does science tell us about a diet that’s healthy for people and the planet?
Cole Adam: Research consistently shows that diets of unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods promote health and are most sustainable. This translates to a diet based on whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. These diets are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and many kinds of cancer. They also happen to be more environmentally sustainable. Compared to diets that contain higher amounts of animal products, plant-based diets require less land and water while emitting fewer greenhouse gases and causing less deforestation and eutrophication (which is when a water body has too many nutrients — primarily nitrogen and phosphorus — causing algae blooms, dead zones and fish kills).
MR: What kind of dietary changes do you recommend to patients who want to improve their health or the health of the planet?
CA: A poor diet has surpassed tobacco smoking as the leading cause of premature death and disability in the world. A healthy diet, on the other hand, is consistently associated with lower rates of illness. Just meeting basic recommendations like eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, swapping out refined grains for whole grains, and eating more beans and nuts instead of red or processed meat can have a major positive impact.
I encourage my patients to pick the low-hanging fruit … and eat it! Start with small, easy, realistic changes that can be sustained. This could be as simple as snacking on nuts instead of chips, using whole grain bread instead of refined white bread, or trying more vegetarian dishes like bean chili or black bean burgers. Once a few changes have been made, then look to build on those. Over time these changes simply become new habits.
MR: Some people are concerned about where they can get nutrients typically associated with animal products, like calcium and protein. How do you recommend people approach shifting what they eat?
CA: All essential nutrients can be obtained from plants, the sun, and fortified foods and supplements. Dairy contains calcium, but so do beans, tofu, dark leafy greens, almonds and oranges. Meat contains iron, but so do lentils, beans, seeds, and many whole grains. The same is true for protein, omega-3 fats, or any other nutrient often associated with animal foods. The one exception is vitamin B12, which everyone on a flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diet should consider supplementing. I would also assure people that they don’t need to shift to a plant-based diet overnight. Gradual change is still change. Focus on progress, not perfection.
MR: Where can our readers find you online?
CA: They can check out my Instagram page, @the.eco.dietitian, where I share plant-based recipes, discuss various nutrition and health topics, and offer information on how our food choices affect animals and the environment.
MR: What are some of your favorite recipes and resources?
CA: Some of my favorite everyday recipes include black bean tacos, tofu stir-fry, whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce, and chickpea salad sandwiches. All of these are cheap, quick, and easy to make. I’m also a fan of different global cuisines that traditionally feature more plant-based options: Ethiopian, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Italian are some of my favorites.
MR: Thank you for sharing your insights about our diets and the planet with Food X readers, Cole.
CA: Thanks, Mark!
And thank you, dear subscriber, for reading. To reward you, here’s my own recipe for a chickpea sandwich.
Get other delicious, easy and planet-friendly recipes — plus downloadable food guides — and learn about the Center’s work on food policy at our Take Extinction Off Your Plate website.
Then take action by signing our pledge to reduce your meat and dairy consumption.
Write to me with any questions at EarthFriendlyDiet@BiologicalDiversity.org.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity