WHAT’S FOR DINNER?

| An Introduction to Sustainable Eating |

For something that is such an essential part of our everyday lives, figuring out the right things to eat can be really complicated – especially once you bring sustainability into the equation.

Veganism and vegetarianism tend to be considered the end-all-be-all of sustainable diets. This assumption, however, completely ignores the nuance and complexity of what sustainable eating actually entails.

Think about it. You can become vegetarian or vegan and end your search for sustainability there since these diets contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions but sustainability is about more than just the environment!

In my class last year called Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development (second time referencing this class because it’s my favorite Columbia class by far!!), we had an assignment to create our version of a sustainable dinner and it was hard

Here’s the article published in the Washington Post about our assignment, if you’re interested. 

We found that there’s so much that goes into picking a sustainable meal and it extends far beyond environmental impacts. On the economic side of things, you have to be able to afford your diet otherwise you won’t be able to maintain it. Similarly, there’s also an element of social sustainability since you should be able to enjoy what you’re eating and it should provide the nutrients that your body needs! 

So then, what’s for dinner? 

A complex and layered question like this one requires an equally nuanced answer. Let’s tackle this issue in sections, shall we?

Healthy Eating

In order to practice sustainable eating, one must first ensure that their meals are satisfying, balanced, provide health benefits, and provide the required nutrients for the human body to function effectively. A diet that lacks the necessary nutrients or consists of harmful ingredients can lead to long term adverse health impacts, such as noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes. Negative diets are high in calories, added sugars, saturated fats, processed foods, and red meats, whereas positive diets consist of a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats. 

According to the Eat-Lancet Commission Report, humans should be eating a balanced meal that consists of 2,500 kcal per day. The healthy reference diet in the report lists fruits and vegetables (204 kcal/day), whole grains (811 kcal per day), dairy foods (153 kcal per day), protein sources (approx. 730 kcal per day), added fats (450 kcal/day), and added sugars (120 kcal/day). Although the report asserts that “the optimal energy intake to maintain a healthy weight will depend on body size and level of physical activity”, implying that the numbers given for calorie intake may vary, it does provide a good foundation upon which to build a personal diet. 

Ethical Purchasing

It’s not just about what you eat but also how it’s produced. It is important to consider fair wages, labor practices, and fair trade in discussions about sustainable eating. With this in mind, although it can be expensive, one can try to purchase fair trade items when possible as a means to promote fair practices for the people involved in the production process. Purchasing locally can also be an opportunity to get to know your local farmers, foster a sense of community, and speak to the farmer about the practices on their farm. 

Working With Your Budget (And Yourself)

Creating a sustainable meal means absolutely nothing if one cannot afford to maintain it and if it does not taste good enough for one to want to eat it again. Therefore, trying to work on a budget that is fiscally responsible and looking for new, interesting recipes or incorporating some favorite foods into a sustainable diet are great ways to make sustainable eating a lot more enjoyable. Sustainable eating should not always feel like a task or a chore as this is ineffective in the long run because most people will begin to feel helpless and quit. If it does, there are probably other ways to do it that do not leave one broke, hungry, and miserable. Also, a large part of sustainable eating on the part of the consumer is the effort that they put in so “cheat meals” (possibly unhealthy or not as good for the environment) to raise morale are greatly encouraged. 

Environmental Sustainability

Whilst understanding how to build a diet that is nutritionally beneficial, it is also important to note that diets that are harmful to the human body can also have negative impacts on the environment. These are known as “lose-lose” diets. Let us say, for example, one was to eat a diet that was very rich in red meat. Not only does red meat increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary artery disease, but it can also create more negative health impacts due to the air pollution created by biomass burning from agriculture and land clearing. Further environmentally detrimental effects include loss of biodiversity, extreme weather conditions/events, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, water insecurity, destruction of ecosystems, and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. All of these environmental and social impacts also lead to the occurrence of overall food insecurity and the socio-economic effects that are associated with this. Thus, it is important to understand how interconnected food systems are with social, economic, environmental impacts in order to fully understand the extent to which our dietary decisions can impact greater global systems. 

To address the environmental impacts of unsustainable eating, it is essential to note that sustainable food production should (ideally) refrain from using additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and nitrogen/phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and seek to avoid increasing methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Although it is probably unrealistic to attempt to tackle all of these large issues at once, trying to eat organically and buy locally when possible can be a good, easy place to start if your budget allows for it. Not only can organic food be healthier and safer to consume, but the lack of pesticides and chemicals in production can help to keep water sources clean by avoiding agricultural run-off and reducing the overall water consumption. Attempting to reduce as much waste as possible is another good way to try to be more sustainable. This can be food waste (by buying only the amount of food that you plan on eating and won’t throw away), plastic waste from packaging, and energy and water waste during food preparation.

Final Thoughts

Sustainable eating is a difficult issue to try to tackle due to the complexity of food systems. Buying organic, for example, may seem like the perfect solution to sustainability, but then there are always so many other factors to consider. Of the light that I have shed on this issue, I think that the most feasible solutions to sustainable eating are attempts to create a delicious, nutritionally balanced meal that limits emissions, when possible, and waste (particularly the consumer’s food, water, and energy waste) and is affordable. It’s also important to understand that sustainable eating can be about give-and-take (maybe you’re more sustainable in some areas than you are in others!) 
It’s completely understandable that it can be daunting for the consumer to monitor all of the factors during the production process that they take no part in but it can still make a difference to attempt to be sustainable in the areas that they have control over, such as their own waste, grocery selections, and money spent. At the end of the day, there must be a bigger push for the responsible parties in the production process to put the most sustainable ingredients possible on the shelves, rather than expecting a consumer to be held fully accountable in global sustainability for the items they purchase.

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