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Eating for Human and Planetary Health

Guest author: Amanda McKinney, MD, FACLM, FACOG


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has informed us that, by 2030, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 45%. Consider what that means for your daily life… traveling half as much by all means other than walking or biking; buying half as much ‘stuff’ as we do now; heating and cooling our homes half as much; cutting emissions from our diet in half… These are difficult to contemplate.

However, the fact that the human diet was included in the six policy goals demonstrates the fact that what we eat matters in the context of the environment, and it’s one of the easiest factors for most of us to control. Of the 48 tons of greenhouse gases attributed to each U.S. household annually, food is responsible for 17% of the total (8 tons). Because livestock agriculture is estimated to be responsible for as much as 50% of total, global greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating animal foods from the diet can have a significant impact on your personal carbon footprint.

The reason this estimate is so high is because the carbon footprint of a hamburger includes all of the fossil fuels that that went into producing the fertilizer and pumping the irrigation water to grow the corn that fed the cow, and it may also include emissions that result from converting forest land to grazing land as well as the methane (a potent global warming gas) released from the animals’ digestion and manure. These foods also often require extensive, energy-intensive processing and transport over long distances before landing on our plates.

The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that if all Americans eliminated just one quarter- pound serving of beef per week, the reduction in global warming gas emissions would be equivalent to taking four to six million cars off the road. Eliminating meat and dairy entirely, a vegan diet, has the lowest carbon footprint of all and can cut your personal carbon “foodprint” by more than half.

Likewise, diet is THE most important influence on health. Optimal eating increases life expectancy and dramatically reduces the lifetime risk of all chronic disease. Conversely, diets high in animal foods and highly refined carbohydrates are the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease. At the end of the day, the evidence strongly supports an overall pattern of healthful eating, which includes lots of minimally processed foods close to nature… predominantly plants (Katz, Meller, 2014).

What we eat impacts our health directly and indirectly through the health of the planet. Humans are completely dependent upon healthy ecosystems to feed, clothe, and house ourselves. As temperatures rise so, too, does sea level. These disruptions, along with more intense weather events, are changing what we can grow, where we can grow it, and how much of it we can grow. In the face of climate change and a degrading environment, our health will suffer from extreme heat, agricultural failures leading to food shortages, issues with water quantity and quality, and emerging infectious diseases not unlike the SARS-CoV 2 virus that has caused this most recent pandemic.

In order to address this issue, policy changes will be needed; however, personal choice in this instance is powerful. What to do then? How can we begin to change this situation? Fortunately, there are things you can do, personally, that can help protect you and your loved ones from the pain of disease while also doing your bit for the planet.

  • First, examine your diet. Consider reducing your meat consumption for your benefit and for the planet’s. Add more whole, minimally processed plant foods.

  • Secondly, reduce your “food miles”. Are there dietary staples that can be sourced locally from growers practicing sustainable or regenerative agriculture or permaculture?

  • Third, grow and preserve some of your own food. Start with a goal of growing 3 percent of the calories you and your family consume. That may not sound like much but when you really determine the number of calories you and your family consume on a daily basis, it adds up quickly. Check out The Grow Network or the DVD, “Grow Your Own Groceries” by Marjorie Wildcraft to learn more. Consider finding a growing partner and sharing your harvests. Perhaps you’re a master tomato grower while your friend grows amazing green beans. Have a canning party at the end of the growing season and swap jars of preserved produce.

  • Fourth, educate your friends, family and neighbors. Conversations about lifestyle choices, climate change and politics are difficult to have but everyone can come together around the issue of access to healthy food. Start a conversation about it. If consumers demand health promoting food and are willing to pay for it, farmers will grow it.

  • Lastly, you can vote and/or run for elected office. It’s imperative that we elect leaders willing to promote the kinds of policy and legislation that will prioritize the health of people and the planet over corporate profits.


About the Author

Dr. Amanda McKinney, MD, FACLM, FACOG is a triple board certified physician in Obstetrics and Gynecology who is passionate about creating healthy and resilient communities by transforming medical education and healthcare delivery. She serves as Chair of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s (ACLM) Global Sustainability Committee and is the founding Executive Director of the Institute for Human and Planetary Health (IHPH) at Doane University.

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