The Worst Foods for the Environment: What to Eat to Minimize Pollution
What you eat has a very strong impact on the environment – thus, you can make a huge difference by choosing foods that minimize pollution. The most popularly consumed foods are some of the worst for the planet, according to scientists. How much pollution is your food choices causing? Air pollution alone is estimated to cause 7 million deaths worldwide each year. With a growing understanding that agriculture is a major source of pollution and our food choices are driving this, there’s a passion rising interest in making it a priority to choose foods that minimize pollution in the air and water. The idea of pollution from nutrition is growing. Are you ready to make a change in your diet that will reduce pollution? You may be surprised, that this choice to eat foods that reduce pollution is healthier for you too. Plus, discover what key nutrients research says can help you reduce the impact of pollution on your health.
What’s the Worst Food for the Planet?
Scientists report that some of the most popular foods consumed are the worst for the planet. Why? In order to be able to produce certain foods cheaply and in reliably high volumes, it requires heavy use of chemicals, medicines, and genetic modification. Ultra-processed foods are an example of foods grown this way. The cost of environmental damage isn’t reflected in the inexpensive store price. Eating ultra-processed foods is the worst food for the planet’s environment, plus the worst thing for humans: the consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to many health concerns, including diseases and poor quality of life.
The worst foods for the planet are amongst the worst foods for humans.
5 Worst Foods for the Planet: Nutrition Pollution
These are the crops experts note as having the greatest impacts on the environment, creating pollution, and earning the title of worst foods for the planet. But, there’s light in this dark story. There are greener ways to grow food. And, you can help too. Reducing consumer demand for these crops can also help ease agricultural pressure to farm in these manners.
Sugar is among the crops that cause the most harm to the planet, according to a study by the World Wildlife Federation. In many cases, the agricultural practices used to grow sugar beets includes farming on steep slopes which causes soil erosion. High water demands of some agricultural practices are damaging the environment: the damming of rivers to water sugar crops in Australia has disrupted the health of the Great Barrier Reef. In some countries, the burning of cane fields is done to aid easier harvest – this leads to air pollution, soil degradation, and loss of some of the crops.
- Processed meat
Red meats are well-known for their significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Add in the environmental impact to ship and intensely process the meat into popular foods from hotdog carts at baseball games or sandwich meat in lunchboxes, and processed meats earn the title of one of the worst foods for the planet.
6 Easy Ways to Eat Less Meat
- Swap the milk you use to plant-based options
- Try carrot bacon instead, on your next Caesar salad
- Switch to spicy black beans as your protein for tacos night
- Lentil Bolognese is a surprisingly delicious non-meat alternative
- Meaty-tasting plants such as mushrooms, are exceptional in many dishes
- Spicy Thai dishes taste as good with tofu instead of meat
- Palm oil
Used in almost everything from ice cream to instant ramen, palm oil has been growing in popularity as a healthier alternative in processed foods to trans fats, which nutritionists have loathed for years. The problem is palm oil agricultural practices lead to significant agricultural pollution (pesticides and fertilizers), causes soil erosion, habitat loss for endangered species, and deforestation (including peat forests which are carbon sinks). There are some more sustainable palm oil agricultural practices underway; however, the better solution for the planet may be to simply not eat the processed foods that contain palm oil and eat whole foods instead.
Widespread monocropping and a high level of fertilizer usage make corn one of the worst plant-based foods for the environment. The impacts of phosphorus and nitrogen use as a fertilizer to grow crops, such as corn, are causing disruptions in not only the availability of clean drinking water but in the ecosystems of many waterways through the overpromotion of algae growth. Scientists estimate that phosphorus use must be reduced by two-thirds to save the planet.
- Avocados and Almonds
Both of these foods are growing in popularity as healthy foods, but they are not the best foods for the environment. Avocados require extensive land and water usage. Almonds also require extensive water usage, as well as fertilizer.
What to Eat to Save the Planet
The best food to eat, if you want to eat to protect the planet, is a diversity of plants. By diversifying what you consume, it reduces pressure on the food system to produce large amounts of any one or few crops. This discourages the need for agricultural practices that are known to harm the environment, and pollute it, in attempts to create such an abundance of food.
Can Sustainable Agriculture Help the Environment?
Since the 1960s, overuse of inorganic fertilizers (nitrogen and phosphorus) has led to acidification and contamination of groundwater. Of the fertilizer applied, estimates show less than half is actually taken up directly by the crop plants. Pesticide use sales have increased 2.5 times in the last 20 years, despite awareness of their negative impacts on the planet and the people who live on it. Sustainable agriculture can help the Environment, with estimates suggesting it uses up to 56 percent less energy per unit of crops produced and 64 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, it supports greater crop biodiversity.
What Can You Do to Eat Better for the Environment?
Consider how about 75% of the world’s food supply comes from just a dozen plants. To ease the pressure, we can choose to eat a greater diversity of foods. Plus, that’s a healthy choice – eating a diversity of foods offers a greater opportunity to minimize any nutrient deficiencies.
5 Ways to Eat to Reduce Pollution
- Grow your own vegetables in your garden, or herbs in your home.
- Choose local and organic when possible.
- Avoid ultra-processed foods and processed meats.
- Tell policymakers sustainable agriculture is important to you.
- Reduce food waste with meal planning and careful food storage.
12 of the Healthiest Foods to Eat that are Better for the Environment
Diversity is important in nutrition, but it may also help the planet, according to experts. The World Wildlife Federation partnered with Knorr foods to create a list of 50 Future Foods in an effort to encourage the world to diversify its food choices. The list includes many beans, algae, and cacti. As well, as many foods Registered Holistic Nutritionists have promoted for their nutritious value, including:
- Beet greens
- Enoki and maitake mushrooms
- Hemp and flax seeds
- Lotus root
- Sprouted chickpeas
How to Eat More Sustainably
Eating more plants is one way to eat more sustainably. Those that are locally grown have not required extensive transportation, reducing the carbon footprint of your meal. Here is more on ways to eat more sustainably.
What Can I Eat to Reduce the Harmful Effects of Pollution
Some foods may help protect your body from pollution, in particular, antioxidant-rich plants, such as fruits and vegetables. According to research, some nutrients are thought to help the body neutralize and remove harmful chemicals that enter our body due to pollution of the air, water, and soil:
- Antioxidants (vitamin C, E)
- B vitamins
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
Want to make a difference?
Learn more about sustainable eating and plant-based cooking from the Canadian leaders in online holistic nutrition education.
Nutrition solutions to reduce risks of negative health impacts of pollution. Nutrients 2015 Dec; 7(12): 10398-10416.
The 21st-century great food transformation. The Lancet 2019 Feb 2; 393(10170): 386-387.
Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review. Nutrients 2020 Jul; 12(7): 1955.
Impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus: from genomes to natural ecosystems and agriculture. Front Ecol Evol 2017 July 6.
New opportunities to mitigate the burden of disease caused by traffic related air pollution: antioxidant-rich diets and supplements. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2020 Jan; 17(2): 630.
Contributed by Allison Tannis