Why sustainable eating matters

No matter what age you are, there’s always an incentive to preserve our precious planet – whether for us or for our children and grandchildren. Food may be plentiful today, but we need to start eating more sustainably if resources aren’t going to run short. Two years ago there was a dismal harvest and a worrying hike in food prices. In the last few weeks the country has been left reeling from the torrential rain that has left much of our farmland waterlogged, with who-knows-what knock-on effect for this spring’s planting season and grazing for cattle. And while the crisis in the Ukraine may seem just another distant conflict, the soaring stock market cost of grain and corn this weekend was largely down to uncertainty about the region, with Ukraine until now set to be the third biggest exporter of corn in the world this year. But how do we eat to protect our environment – and stay healthy at the same time?

Food is responsible for up to one third of the greenhouse gases produced in the UK, and the lion’s share of that comes from meat and dairy products. It takes 11 times more fossil fuel to produce meat protein as the same amount of plant protein. The obvious solution is to eat a more plant-based diet – a recent report estimates two thirds of our calorie intake should come from plant foods. Meat-free Monday may not be a new concept – it was first coined by the US Food Administration in the First World War – but it’s still a great start to a healthier you, and a healthier world, today.

Cholesterol – where lower is better

Heart attack and stroke are still the biggest killers in the UK, and raised levels of ‘bad’ LDL play a major part in the build-up of dangerous ‘plaque’ on the inside of your arteries. Although all fats and oils are equally high in calories, vegetable oils contain less saturated and more unsaturated fat, making them better for your cholesterol. The more plant-based foods – beans, pulses, vegetables and fruit – in your diet, the lower the saturated fat as a rule. Rapeseed oil is a great alternative to butter – even lower in saturated fat than olive oil. Try a small bowl mixed with a little balsamic vinegar on the table to dip your bread – very healthy nouvelle cuisine!

Blood pressure

Salt is the biggest culprit here. We need some salt for taste, but too much can raise your blood pressure – a lot! Use herbs and spices rather than salt to flavour food; watch out for ‘hidden’ salt in ready-cooked meals and cereals; and cut back on salty crisps and snacks.

Build your bones

Calcium is essential for healthy bones, and never more than later in life, where your risk of thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) rises. You need about 700 mg a day, or up to 1250 mg a day of calcium after the menopause. Of course, dairy products are a great source (1½ oz hard cheese or half a pint milk gives you 375 mg of calcium). But soya-based foods are also high in calcium – fortified soya milk or yoghurt is as high in calcium as the dairy equivalent, and a 120 g portion of tofu has as much calcium as half a pint of milk. Some fruit and veg are also good sources – a small tin of baked beans, a portion of spinach or a serving of four figs has 180 mg of calcium.

Protein – the building block of your body

We all need protein in our diets – it makes up part of everything from cell walls to nerves to muscle. If you eat meat, you’ll probably get plenty, but getting enough of the ‘essential’ amino acids that make up some proteins can be harder if you’re vegetarian. Soya is one of the few plant foods containing all the amino acids you need. As well as soya milk, yoghurt and tofu, soya beans are freely available in the frozen food section of supermarkets and make a tasty addition to almost any meal. Sprinkle toasted seeds onto a salad or bulk out small amounts of meat in stews and soups with beans and pulses, helping your budget as well as your health.

Sugar – the new criminal on the block?

Of course, technically the sugar we eat comes from cane plants, so it’s also a plant-based food. I hope it goes without saying that it’s not this kind of plant I’m talking about. Sugar in processed foods or from a packet is a classic example of a highly refined carbohydrate – it’s absorbed quickly into your system, causing a rapid spike (and then drop) in your blood sugar. The headlines suggesting we should forget saturated fat as ‘the bad guy’ and focus entirely on avoiding refined carbs are a gross oversimplification. Sugar provides no nutritional benefit and in large quantities it can lead to obesity and diabetes. Of course we should be avoiding processed sugar as much as possible – personally, I’d like to see sugar-laden drinks taxed to the hilt. But eat the same amount of sugar from an apple or neat on a teaspoon and the effects are very different.

Diabetes – you are what you eat

About 90% of people with diabetes in the UK have type 2 diabetes, which isn’t caused simply by eating too much sugar but is closely linked to your weight. It doesn’t matter whether that excess weight comes from too many sweets, too many pies or not enough exercise – major studies show that having a BMI over 35 increases your risk of type 2 diabetes by 90 times if you’re a woman and 40 times if you’re a man, compared to a BMI in the middle of the ideal range. (1,2) If you’re an ‘apple’, who carries excess weight around their midriff, rather than a ‘pear’, the risk is even higher. A high-fibre diet gives you a much better chance of keeping your weight under control (refs 3,4) – and plant-based foods almost always come with a high fibre tag attached. So fill up on veg, fruit and plant-based foods and you’ll protect your waistline – and cut your risk of diabetes!

With thanks to ‘My Weekly’ magazine where this article was originally published.


1. Colditz GA et al. Ann Intern Med 1995;122:481–486.

2. Chan J et al. Diabetes Care 1994;17:961–969.

3. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/5/920.full

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17998014

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