Study By South Coast Researchers Finds Healthier Diets Can Help Fight Climate Change

May 19, 2017

Eating healthy foods can do more than improve your health.  Researchers say it can also benefit the health care system and even the planet. A new study by scientists on the South Coast finds that healthy eating will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Taking a bite out of an apple or chomping on some carrots can actually make inroads in addressing climate change, according to a study led by UC Santa Barbara researchers.

“No one had looked at this. That’s why I was so interested in seeing what the affect of better diets would be on the climate – not only in our food system itself from inputs, production, marketing, transport, packaging, which is huge, but also what they would have by improving people’s health and therefore reducing healthcare,” said David Cleveland, the study’s director and a research professor in UCSB’s environmental studies program.

He says the food system contributes to about 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the country, with the largest proportion coming from animal-based food and the lowest from food that is plant-based.

“There’s this synergy between these foods that are good for people and good for the planet and foods that are bad for people and bad for the planet,” he said.

While studies have shown that healthier foods like fruits and vegetables leave a smaller carbon footprint than other foods, this study goes further. It looks at diet and healthcare.

Quentin Gee, the study’s co-author and a UCSB environmental studies lecturer, says they analyzed the effects of food on three diseases: diabetes, colorectal cancer and coronary heart disease.

“You will have reduction in what they call “relative risk” -- a reduction in likelihood of developing a given disease if you’re eating a healthier diet,” he said.

Researchers say the U.S. spends $3 trillion on healthcare each year – that’s 18-percent of the gross domestic product. Much of that is allocated to diseases associated with poor diets. So, by eating a healthier diet, the financial savings in health care could potentially be tremendous. And, so could the reduction in greenhouse gases.

“Because they are healthier, they don’t need to go to the hospital as much, they don’t need ambulatory services, they don’t need pharmaceuticals or as many pharmaceuticals. That taken altogether saves billions of dollars in the economy but also leads to less of a greenhouse gas footprint associated with those billions of dollars spent on medical care,” Gee said.

Cleveland says if you just look at reducing hospital stays, you can see a large decrease in emissions.

“You could shrink the power to light them, you could shrink the gas to heat them, you could shrink the water – the energy it takes to put the water in the hospitals and so on. Everything we do generates some impact and some greenhouse gas emissions. So, the more we can reduce the access of that activity, the more we can reduce the emissions,” he said.

Cleveland says the study finds that healthier diets could contribute up to 134% of California’s goal of reaching 1990 emission levels by 2020.

“We can have good healthy food that’s good for the climate, it’s good for the planet. That’s the big takeaway. We need to be not ignoring this possibility. It’s not just something that would be nice, we need to do it to save ourselves from catastrophe climate change and from catastrophic health care system costs. We need to change our diets," he said.