Since Earth Day is this is a good time to think about the impact we have on our environment and what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
You can go green by eating green—more vegetables and fruits. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day, but more is better especially green leafy and brightly colored vegetables. Ideally, you would eat fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, but frozen is a good alternative.
Eating locally grown food is good for you and the environment. Food production and delivery is second only to cars for fossil fuel use and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to one estimate, the food items that make up a typical meal travel about 1,500 miles each (as much as 100,000 miles for a whole meal in some places) to get to your table? Food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint.
Additionally, produce grown locally is picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. By contrast, produce that is grown far away is picked before it is ripe, resulting in lower nutritional value. As an added benefit, the money you spend on food from local farms stays in our area, supporting farmers who live in our community.
While you are eating more veggies, you can eat less meat. Raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs has a major impact on the environment. Over a quarter of land is dedicated to raising livestock, and almost 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. These animals also produce tons of manure every minute, at least some of which ends up polluting water supplies.
What about organic? Organic food, including produce, milk, and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including perceived health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits over eating a healthy diet in general.
There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health. The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods.
Although reduced exposure to pesticides is a common reason to go organic, there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.
But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.
So, as you reflect on the meaning of Earth Day, try to eat locally to improve your health and reduce your impact on the environment. Most importantly, make sure your food choices are part of a lifestyle that includes and regular physical activity getting enough sleep.