By Dr. Joseph Mercola
If you think eating healthy means only what you eat, then it may be time to reconsider your definition of “healthy living.” Healthy for yourself also means healthy for your planet, which means finding more sustainable ways to nourish yourself and your family.
From shopping at farmers’ markets to carefully selecting the bags you carry your food home in, there are ways to take healthy eating to the next level and help be more eco-friendly while you take care of yourself.
Time Healthland recently shared 33 tips to help transition your eating style into a sustainable one; even seemingly small changes can make a big difference.
At The Store
1. Use Reusable Bags
Each year about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. At over 1 million bags per minute, that’s a lot of plastic bags, of which billions end up as litter each year, contaminating oceans and other waterways.
Plastic bags, like the petroleum they are made from, don’t biodegrade very well at all; rather, they photodegrade. Meaning, they break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, which contaminate soil and waterways, and enters the food chain – animals accidentally eat these bits and pieces, mistaking them for food. It’s estimated that 1 million birds and 100,000 turtles and other sea animals starve to death each year after consuming plastic debris, which blocks their digestive tracts.
Paper bags are not an environmentally friendly alternative, as millions of trees must be cut down to make them each year… and the process is very energy intensive.
Carry reusable shopping bags instead; keep them in the trunk of your car, or stash a couple of the small fold-up varieties in your purse so you’re always prepared. You can also avoid plastic produce bags (put the produce right into your reusable cloth bag instead) and use reusable cloth bags for packaging your child’s school lunch and snacks.
2. Choose Foods With Minimal Packaging
If you can choose foods in bulk, unwrapped form, do so. Excess packaging only adds to the waste filling up landfills, and often it’s made out of toxic materials (like Styrofoam, which may cause cancer and produces hazardous waste and gasses when manufactured).
One study conducted by Portland State University Food Industry Leadership Center, for the Bulk is Green Council, revealed that Americans could save an average of 89 percent on costs by buying their organic foods in bulk, compared to organic packaged counterparts.2 According to the report, if Americans purchased the following products in bulk for one year, it would save hundreds of millions of pounds of waste from going into landfills, making bulk purchasing a definite win for more sustainable eating:
- Coffee: 240 million pounds of foil packaging saved from landfills
- Almonds: 72 million pounds of waste saved from landfills
- Peanut butter: 7 pounds of waste saved from landfills per family
- Oatmeal: Saves five times the waste of its packaged equivalent
3. Ditch Bottled Water
Bottled water is perhaps one of the most environmentally unfriendly industries there is. Americans consume about half a billion bottles of water every week! The environmental ramifications of this practice are enormous. The video The Story of Bottled Water, brought to you by the folks who created the wildly successful video The Story of Stuff, does an excellent job of illustrating the truth about bottled water. Instead of bottled water, drinking filtered tap water is a healthier, more sustainable option (take it with you on the go using a glass water bottle).
4. Think About Where You Shop
Choose to purchase your food at stores that have a thoughtful selection of local and organic foods, as well as store practices that limit waste, such as putting doors on the refrigerated section or offering a recycling program. Even better, for a more sustainable diet and to help the local economy, shop at farmers markets to support local farmers and craftspeople.
5. Get Your Produce Locally
Locally grown produce is not only fresher, it will not have to be shipped across the globe to get to your dinner plate and is therefore the more environmentally friendly alternative. Remember, food grown locally is not always organic. Though it may be grown just down the road and sold at your local farm stand, it may still be doused in pesticides and grown in chemical fertilizers, and tended by workers being paid unfair wages.
At the same time, the organic certification process established by the federal government is expensive, and some small farmers cannot afford it. This means some local foods are grown according to organic standards but are not “certified organic.” The only way to know for sure is to become “friendly” with your farmers, so that you can learn about their practices.
6. Eat More Produce
Eating less meat – or going vegetarian- can be one of the most environmentally ways you can change your diet. If you eat meat that comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) (one of the worst ways to raise food environmentally), then eating more produce in lieu of it will give the environment a break. CAFOs are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and deforestation, so whether you eat more produce or choose to get your meat elsewhere, both will help to save the planet.
7. Eat Organic Produce
The fewer chemicals used to grow your food, the better for all concerned. And the only way to ensure your food is as pure as possible, outside of talking to the farmer directly, is to look for the organic seal. There are a few different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal.
This seal is one of your best commercial assurances of organic quality, so when in doubt: if it doesn’t carry the USDA Organic seal, you might not be getting what you’re paying for.
Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels. Certified organic crops cannot be grown with any of the following:
- Synthetic pesticides
- Bioengineered genes
- Petroleum-based fertilizers
- Sewage sludge-based fertilizers
8. Eat Your Produce Raw
There are a myriad of health reasons why you should consume more of your food raw, but from an environmental perspective, you can save some energy by forgoing cooking and chomping on raw (or fermented!) veggies instead.
9. Eating Eco-Friendly Means Eating In Season
When you choose produce in season, you can shop locally and support farmers in your area — a huge win for the environment! As a bonus, it’ll taste better too.
10. Ferment Or Preserve Your Veggies
If you have a lot of summer fruits and veggies that you need to use up before they spoil, try your hand at preserving them so they’re available to you year-round. You can also ferment your veggies, which is absolutely fantastic for your health, and they will keep for months in your fridge.
11. Grow Your Own
Growing your own organic fruits and veggies is about as environmentally friendly as you can get. In the spring, try your hand at growing your favorites; it only takes a small parcel of land. If you’re thinking of planting veggies but are not sure where to begin, visit a few local plant nurseries around your home, especially those that specialize in organic gardening. The employees are likely to be a great resource for natural planting tips that will help your garden thrive.
Even if you only have access to a patio, you can still grow some of your own veggies using containers. Tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers are examples of plants that thrive in containers, but the sky is really the limit.
12. Join A CSA Program
Joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program is also a great way to make your diet more sustainable. You purchase a “share” of a farm directly from a farmer, and in return get seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season (some CSAs also include other products, like meat, honey, dairy, and more).
13. Avoid CAFO Meats
The trend of large corporate-controlled CAFOs making up the lion’s share of U.S. food production has led to an abundance of cheap food, but not without serious health, ethical and environmental consequences. Among them:
- Loss of water quality through nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in rivers, streams, and ground water (which contributes to “dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones”)
- Agricultural pesticide contamination to streams, ground water, and wells; and safety concerns to agricultural workers who use them
- A decline in nutrient density of 43 garden crops (primarily vegetables), which suggests “possible tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content”
- Large emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide
- Negative impact on soil quality through such factors as erosion, compaction, pesticide application and excessive fertilization
Most meat sold in grocery stores comes from CAFOs, so avoiding this meat means getting your food from local growers or seeking out certified organic, grass-fed meat (see No. 17 below).
14. Buy Locally Grown Meats
As with produce, buying your meat from local sources is the more health-conscious and more eco-friendly choice.
15. Focus On Organic Meats
Certified organic meat (and milk) must come from animals that have had access to pasture for at least four months of the year. Further, 30 percent of the animals’ feed must come from this grazing time, and the animals cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. From both an environmental and health standpoint, the most important foods to buy organic are animal products — not produce — because animal foods, which are raised on pesticide-laced feed, tend to have higher concentrations of pesticides. So when prioritizing your purchases, look for organic meats, eggs, and dairy products before anything else.
16. Opt Out Of Antibiotics
About 80 percent of all the antibiotics produced are used in agriculture — not only to fight infection, but to promote unhealthy (though profitable) weight gain. Feeding livestock continuous, low-dose antibiotics creates a perfect storm for widespread disease proliferation — and, worse yet, antibiotic-resistant disease. This link is so clear-cut that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed has been banned in Europe since 2006.
Antibiotics are not only embedded in your meats, they have made their way into your produce as well, as slow-to-biodegrade antibiotics are transferred, via the manure used as fertilizer, into your corn, lettuce, potatoes, and other crops. Even eating organically may not entirely alleviate this problem, since organic crops, which cannot be fertilized with synthetic fertilizers, are the ones most often fertilized with manure.
As it stands, conventional, factory-farmed animal manure containing antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is still allowed under the USDA organic label. However, non-medical use of antibiotics is not permitted in organic farming, so going organic is still the best choice for avoiding antibiotics in your food.
17. Choose Grass-Fed Meat
The differences between conventionally raised, grain-fed livestock, and organically raised, grass-fed cows are so vast, you’re really talking about two different animals, and two separate industries with entirely different farming practices and environmental impacts.
The carbon footprint of conventional farming is mainly due to the unnatural feed that these animals are given, which requires lots of fossil fuels. Many don’t think about this, but fossil fuels are used in everything from the fertilizers and pesticides that are sprayed onto the crop to the transportation of the feed.
Grass does not require fossil fuels to grow (rotating pastures does the job instead), and other health harming practices, such as injecting the livestock with hormones and antibiotics, are also not allowed in organic farming. Grass-fed cows are also not concentrated into small spaces the way CAFO cows are, meaning their waste is easily reused as fertilizer, rather than congregating as toxic waste. This equates to healthier meat, a healthier you, and benefits to the planet.
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18. Check For This On Your Seafood Label
I don’t normally advise eating seafood, unless you know for certain that it comes from unpolluted waters and is free from contaminants. However, if you choose to, look for The Marine Stewardship Council certification on the label. The MSC focuses on the health of ocean stocks and how they are managed, in addition to assessing the effect of the fishery on the wider ecosystem. This includes a range of marine mammals, birds, and fish.
Companies who have completed the certification can offer yet another layer of assurance to their customers. The MSC eco-label provides a guarantee of sustainable fishing practices, as well as full traceability through the chain of custody, from beginning to end.
19. Know Your Fish
Certain fish should not be consumed because they are endangered or pose too high of contamination risks. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Watch guide to help you determine which seafood choices are better off avoided. For instance, the following seafood options should be avoided because they are overfished or caught/farmed in ways that harm marine life or the environment:
- Chilean seabass
- Atlantic cod
- King crab (imported)
- Orange roughy
- Farmed salmon
- Tuna (canned and bluefin)
It is also reasonable to assume that radioisotopes from the Fukushima disaster have now accumulated in some fish that are harvested from the Pacific, as was recently confirmed in California bluefin tuna that had migrated from the ocean off Japan. So please exercise caution when choosing your fish.
20. Avoid Imported Fish
As with all food, the farther the fish has to travel to get to you, the worse it is for the environment. More than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and over 40 percent of all seafood is produced in aqua-farms in China and other Asian countries.
21. Avoid Farmed Fish
It’s estimated that about half of the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture, which is the term used to describe industrial fish farming. Like the land-based CAFOs, industrial fish farming has had problems from the start, including overcrowded conditions, pollution, and unnatural diets.
Feed has been an area of controversy, as sometimes wild fish are used to prepare the fishmeal fed to farmed fish, depleting the natural fish supply in some areas. Further, the soy industry, Monsanto, Cargill and other agribusiness giants are trying to position genetically modified soy as a “sustainable” choice for aquaculture feed. But since soy is not a natural food found in the oceans, it poses serious risks of pollution, lack of nutrient content in seafood, and contamination of the oceans with herbicide-saturated GM soy.
22. Choose Hormone-Free Dairy
Recombinant (genetically engineered) bovine growth hormone is used to significantly increase milk production in cows to highly unnatural levels. Treated cows can produce as much as 15 to 25 percent more milk. But this increase in milk production, and hence profit, has hidden costs, namely the cows’ and your health (including links to cancer). In addition, this hormone is primarily used by dairy cows raised on CAFOs, which pose all of the same environmental, health and ethical concerns as CAFOs for other types of animals.
23. Choose Local Dairy Products
Notice a theme yet? The more of your food you can buy locally, the better for you, your family, and the environment.
24. Choose Organic Dairy Products
Organic dairy products are important because they’ll be free from pesticides and Monsanto’s genetically engineered growth hormone rBGH creation. However, the real issue is not organic vs. non-organic milk, but pasteurized vs. non-pasteurized, or raw, milk (the latter is the superior choice).
25. Raw Dairy Products Reign Supreme
If you want to continue consuming milk and milk products, I suggest you get them in the raw from organic dairy farmers who are set up specifically to produce high-quality, clean, nutritious raw dairy products. This is the best option for consuming dairy sustainably.
You can find milk, cheese, and other dairy products in raw form, although it may take a little searching. High-quality raw milk has an abundance of nutritional elements, including enzymes, conjugated linoleic acid and natural butterfat that are destroyed or lacking in pasteurized dairy, and will not subject the environment or the cows to the horrors of CAFOs.
Conventional dairy farms are not typically set up to produce milk that is safe and pure enough to be consumed raw, whereas milk that’s been produced with the intention of being consumed raw should come from a small dairy farm that raises grass-fed cows in natural, healthy conditions.
At A Restaurant
26. Skip The Bottles
Just as you avoid bottled water at home, skip it in restaurants too (if you’re worried about quality, bring your own from home). You can also save waste by ordering beer on tap instead of in a bottle.
27. Eat At Restaurants That Purchase Local Food
Increasing numbers of restaurants are supporting local farmers to find the freshest, most sustainable sources of produce and other food. Support these restaurants and their efforts to make the world a better place.
28. Ask About The Food When You’re Eating Out
It’s OK, and encouraged, to ask your server or restaurant manager about where they get their food or how it’s processed, and state your preferences for more eco-friendly options as well. While they may be surprised by your interest, if enough people begin to inquire it could prompt them to start sourcing their foods from more natural, sustainable sources.
Eating At Home
29. Reduce Waste
If you use plastic utensils or paper plates, swap them for real dishes and use cloth napkins instead of paper ones. It’s also important to cut down on food waste, which another unnecessary drain on an environmental and financial resources.
I’ve long stated that planning your meals is important for a number of reasons, one of which is reducing the amount of food that will go to waste, since you’ll only buy what you need each time you visit the store.
30. Try Composting
Leftover fruit and veggies scraps, leaves and grass clippings (only if not chemically treated) can turn into a valuable natural fertilizer if you compost them instead of throwing them in the trash.
31. Eat Your Leftovers
Rather than simply throwing leftover food in the trash, reduce the waste and save the energy of cooking another meal by revamping them into a new dish. You can, for instance, use the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, or throw some extra veggies in the fridge into your juicer to make a fresh green drink. You’ll not only be saving money and time; you’re helping to save the environment, too!
32. Double Your Recipes
This is a great way to save some cooking energy (yours and the oven’s), as you can use one batch to eat right away and put the other in the freezer for another day.
33. Cook One Or More “Local” Meals Per Week
If you’re new to buying locally grown foods, challenge yourself to create one meal a week solely from these foods. You can even invite some friends or neighbors in on the challenge, and have a locally grown potluck dinner for sustainable, tasty eating and a night of socializing!
Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, board-certified in family medicine. He has written two New York Times bestsellers and shared his expertise on ABC News, NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and in TIME and Forbes magazines.