"How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used," writes Wendell Berry in What are People For? You want to eat right, and to feed your family foods that are both nutritious and good for the planet, but get so confused with all you read and hear in the news. Which is better – local or organic? Should we stop eating fish, too contaminated? What about beef, is any good for you?

Is it even possible that a healthier diet is also better for the planet? The answer of course to this question is a resounding “yes.” The food that is healthiest for you - fresh and whole, rich in variety, unprocessed, high in nutrients not empty calories – is also the healthiest for the earth, produced using methods that strive to be sustainable, meaning they aim to maintain and enhance our vital natural resources – water, energy, air, and soil - upon which food production and life ultimately depends. Conversely, the foods that are highest in fat and require the most pesticides and fertilizers to produce are also the most energy-intensive and producing them takes the greatest toll on the planet.

It may seem an impossible task to turn around the American diet, and with it the way we produce food, but it’s not. Consumers have a lot of leverage in the marketplace, just look at how sales of organic products have grown, trans-fats have been squeezed out of cookies and crackers and even WalMart is sourcing more items locally. What makes it all possible though is that eating well is not so hard to do, and is easier on your wallet, and far more pleasing to the palate than the way we eat now. Follow these nine simple steps, applying them when you shop each week and prepare dinner each night. Use the many delicious recipes in Cooking Essentials as your inspiration and guide.

1. Eat less meat.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2006 that current production levels of meat contribute between 14 and 22 per cent of the carbon dioxide equivalent gases the world produces every year. Beef and dairy production emit particularly high levels of greenhouse gases; producing 0.25kg of ground meat releases four times as much greenhouse gases as released in the production of the same amount of pork, 14 times for chicken, and 50-60 times for fruits/vegetables. This is particularly true when the animals are raised in Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) where they are fed on corn or soy beans, since these crops are particularly energy intensive requiring more chemical herbicides and fertilizers than any other crop. Beef production is also more water intensive: To produce a kg of beef requires 15,500 litres of water in contrast to 3,900 litres to produce 1 kg of chicken meat.

2. When you do eat meat, eat grass fed.

Animals that are grass-fed their entire life are healthier and their meat safer for you. A ruminant’s gut is normally a pH-neutral environment, best suited to a diet of foraging on cellulosic grasses. They are not well suited for a diet of corn and other grains, the primary fare of feedlot cattle. High in starch, low in roughage and a poor source of calcium and magnesium, corn upsets the cow’s stomach making it unnaturally acidic. This acidity is not only harmful to the cow, giving it a sort of bovine heartburn or worse making it very sick, it allows a whole range of parasites and diseases to gain a foothold, including the pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. Grass-fed animals produce the right kind of fat. Many of us think of "corn-fed" beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn't. A corn-fed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can't be trimmed off. Grass-fed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. It also has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower heart disease and cancer risk that is lacking in our diets (To learn more, read Top 10 reasons to eat grass fed meat).

3. Choose smaller fish that are wild and local.

Eating fish can be a smart alternative to meat. It's a lean protein with great health benefits. But seafood can be contaminated with high amounts of mercury or PCBs, causing ill health effects. And some varieties of seafood have been overfished or caught in ways that may cause lasting damage to our oceans and marine life. Choose small fish that tend to be plentiful and better for health because they contain less mercury. Wild fish are almost always better for your health and the environment than farm-fished of the same variety. And choosing fish that is the most local means fewer miles from the source to your plate, unless that species has been depleted in local waters (To learn more, read Fish Picks: Choose Your Seafood for Safety and Sustainability).

4. Eat local whenever you can.

On average, our food travels from 1500 to 2500 miles on its way to your plate, via transportation that guzzles gas and spews toxic emissions along the way. So when weighing the choice between organic (but shipped) and local, the better environmental choice is often food that comes from local sources, even if it’s not certified organic. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, a premier think tank researching the impact of “food miles,” contends that local foods tend to be picked closer to peak ripeness and are less likely to be treated with the post-harvest chemicals used to prevent spoilage when produce is to be shipped. Chefs have long favored local foods because they taste better and help keep regional culinary traditions alive. Both chefs and consumers can more easily contact – and even visit – local farms to see how the food is produced. Finally, when you support farms financially, you save them from the developer’s bulldozer, an all-too-common fate these days. Note, too, that relying on locally produced foods means eating in sync with the seasons, a diet that includes root vegetables and preserved produce during cold weather. Use NRDC’s Eat Local widget to find out what fresh’s fresh near where you live.

5. Eat organic produce where it counts the most.

In 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the first national organic standards and provided a product seal identifying and verifying food grown on “certified organic” farms. The standards set out the methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products. No synthetic pesticides may be used on crops unless they are on a list of approved substances. Similarly, to be certified organic, animals must be fed 100% certified organic feed, and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics.

There are clear health benefits to these rules. According to the National Academy of Sciences, more than 80 percent of the most commonly used pesticides have been classified as potentially carcinogenic, and many have been linked to increased risk of birth defects and human reproductive problems. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides’ harmful effects, which is especially worrisome given that some 20 million youngsters age five and under in the U.S. consume an average of eight pesticides in food daily. Overuse of antibiotics has contributed to a rise in drug-resistant bacteria in humans. All that said, organic food is simply not always available or affordable. So buy organic where it counts the most, as when the conventional variety is known to contain high levels of pesticides.

6. Eat whole foods.

One visit to a supermarket proves that most foods are not consumed in their natural “whole” state. Rather, the majority of foods for sale are highly processed for maximum shelf life and minimum preparation time. The trade off: these foods are often stripped of their natural nutrients and pumped full of preservatives and other additives to manipulate “mouth feel” and taste. The truth is that Americans are getting fat on these foods, with 64% of our adult population qualifying as either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Better to stock your shopping cart high and your refrigerator and pantry full with fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds--the fiber and essential nutrients they contain play a highly beneficial role in the body’s metabolic processes and in its defense against cancer, heart disease, and common digestive ailments.

7. Eat a variety of foods.

The best way to consume the nutrients you need is to eat the widest variety of foods, a strategy that runs contrary to our industrial food production system, in which just a few species of plants – primarily corn, wheat, rice – provide nearly 60 % of the calories the average American consumes. While traditional agriculture depended on eighty thousand species of plants, industrial agriculture now provides most of the food on our planet from just fifteen to thirty species of cultivated plants. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has found that "nearly all plant-breeding programs in the -U.S. emphasize yield, uniformity, market acceptability and pest resistance, but not nutritional quality" Indeed, breeding plants for the characteristics desirable for industrial production and marketing often lowers the plants' nutritional values.

The loss of diversity renders our food supply more vulnerable. Disease spreads quickly through a field planted with all the same crop, the only defense – large amounts of pesticides. The Irish potato famine, which killed thousands of people and caused millions to emigrate in the 1840s, was caused by reliance on one kind of potato that turned out to be vulnerable to a fungus that grew in a damp spell. The fungus killed all of Ireland's potatoes. In the 1970s southern corn leaf blight killed 15 percent, or a billion bushels, of corn in the U.S. and U.S. seed exports may have spread the blight to Africa, Latin America and Asia, according to Shattering: Food, Politics, and The Loss of Genetic Diversity, by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney. The Slow Food movement seeks to promote biodiversity by encouraging the cultivation of endangered food species, including heirloom vegetables, ancient grains and rare livestock breeds.

8. Minimize waste.

The most obvious offenders are fast food and take-out restaurants, which swaddle to-go food in disposable materials, while providing customers with plastic cutlery, for example. And while corporations like McDonald’s are trying to source recycled materials – for its paper bags, for instance – the fact is that a carrot from a farmstand requires no packaging at all. Supermarket foods, especially “convenience” products, are guilty of using far too much packaging – think of those Pringles canisters containing just six ounces of chips. When shopping, “vote” with your dollars for companies selling food in recycled packaging. Buy foods in bulk and from bins. Bring back bags for re-use. Avoid plastic wrap, which may transfer harmful chemicals to food. Annually, Americans consume 189 billion beverages sold in glass, plastic and aluminum –that’s two per day per person. Reduce your share by buying frozen concentrates and making your own drinks in reusable containers.

9. Eat home cooked meals you make from scratch.

Now here’s a truly radical idea– cook your own meals at home starting with fresh whole foods. Obviously, by buying your own whole foods, preferably organic, you have the utmost control over how the ingredients in your meals are “processed.” Cooked-from-scratch meals also tend to be less expensive and involve much less waste. And they can be fast and easy. So, don’t be surprised if you actually come to enjoy cooking and prefer what you can make simply, quickly and more cheaply than ordering in or going out.

Photo credit: Corey Templeton

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