Monday, August 13, 2012

What is a sustainable eating plan?

Patio THAT's sustainable
I live by a truly integrative approach to nutrition. It is not enough for me to search out the best sources of fibre or omega 3s and admonish you to eat them. Whether we are conscious of our food choices or not, we arrive at those choices via complex processes. Similarly, the impact that those food choices have on our body, mind, spirit, culture and environment are equally complex. Sustainability is a word that gets thrown about a great deal - but what does it mean to eat sustainably? 

Many of us choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet in the name of sustainability. And there is plenty of data to support this. According to the EWG's Meat Eater's Guide, if everyone in the US went without meat and dairy for just a single day (Meatless Monday, anyone?) it would be akin to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. However, even within a plant-based diet, there are plenty of sustainability concerns.

We must also consider how we process our food, where it is grown and by whom. If a vegan diet contains plenty of exotic super foods such as matcha, acai and goji berries, does that negate its sustainability? Is it more sustainable to purchase fair trade, organic quinoa from Peru or to buy conventionally grown wheat from Saskatchewan? Is it greener to buy 100 mile greenhouse-grown tomatoes in March or field grown from Mexico? If only someone could create a perfect, all-encompassing calculation to help us weigh the options and deliver a tidy little point system to help guide us!

What about seafood? The evidence on the health benefits of omega 3 DHA and EPA from seafood is quite strong but we must contend with whether it is sustainable for us to eat any fish at all. And does contamination with mercury and PCBs, rampant in our polluted oceans, negate the long term benefits?

Another local Vancouver dietitian, Dean Simmons, published a wonderful essay on the topic of sustainability and other ethical issues in nutrition practice in the journal Critical Dietetics. It is free to access the journal (but you must create a login) and the essay is well worth the time to read it. I agree with Dean that as nutrition professionals, we need to consider more than just the latest research when choosing how to form our nutrition philosophy and guiding others on making food choices.

I have to say, I don't think I have all the answers. This is not a prescriptive article. I know which choices make the most sense for me - as they are the choices I make on a daily basis. I feel that eating locally grown, organic food is important. As is eating more plant foods and fewer processed foods. However, I still choose to eat organic dairy and eggs. And I can understand why eating ethically raised, pastured meat makes sense for people. Vegetarian diets, as I learned when I completed my first 100 mile diet challenge last year, are a luxury borne by access to plant proteins - which we don't really grow close to home.

And I can't dismiss the sustainability issue of the family food budget. It is getting more and more expensive to house and transport yourself. I have a difficulty with praising buying local food from the farmer's market to a family that is trying to make ends meet. If you are interested in what it costs to feed a family a basic healthy food basket, read this report on the cost of eating in BC. I do feel that we all have a right to high quality food...but that is a soapbox chat for another day.

Of course, at the end of the day, sustainable food choices also mean that they are food choices you can continue to make for life. Eating nothing but patio kale and locally caught sardines is no way to live. I have seen plenty of instances where someones sincere desire to live healthfully has led to an expensive, restrictive, joyless diet. Food is something that should nourish your senses and your well as your stomach. It is up to you to determine what a sustainable lifestyle will look like in your world - I would love to hear your thoughts.
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