Eat sustainably and help yourself, your wallet and the planet

Did you know that an environmentally sustainable diet can be good not only for your health, but also cheaper than a ‘conventional’ diet by up to $1,800 per year?

Elements like meat, cheese, processed foods and packaged snacks all contribute to a global trend that will see half of the world’s adults (and around 35% of all people) overweight or obese by 2030. Given the projected global population increase to 10 billion people, this is a major concern for health incomes around the world. Additionally, if we eat more energy than we need, especially  by consuming foods that are either low in nutrition or high in environmental impact, the problem will worsen.

Luckily, the Planetary Health Diet (2019) describes a diet that is not only good for people, but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and land use during production. Researched by nearly 40 of the leading experts in human health, agriculture, environmental science and even political science, the Planetary Health Diet details ideal quantities of minimally processed foods sourced from sustainable food systems. However, the question remains: is this ‘ideal diet’ actually practical and affordable for the average Australian?

Our research set out to address the question. Starting with the recommendations of the Planetary Health Diet, we created a virtual food basket containing more fresh produce and less ultra-processed foods. Our basket consisted of items such as brown rice; nuts; wholemeal bread; oats; fresh fruit and vegetables; beans and legumes, with only a small amount of meat (mainly poultry and fish). We conducted cost comparisons on this basket with a virtual basket of the typical Australian diet, at Coles supermarkets in metropolitan locations in each Australian state. The typical Australian diet is comprised of more processed and ultra-processed foods, more meat and other animal products with less fresh vegetables and fruit.  To ensure affordability across a range of household incomes, we price-tested across a broad range of socio-economic areas as well.

We discovered that not only was the Planetary Health Diet always more affordable than the traditional Australian (which typically contains high amounts of salt- and sugar-laden products, processed and heavily packaged items, and excessive animal derived foods), but households in the lower socio-economic areas saved the most. The typical Australian diet costs this population group 21% of  their disposable income, while the Planetary Health Diet would only cost 17%. In context, this worked out to be an average saving of $35 per week, or $1800 per year. 

If you don’t happen to carry the Planetary Health Diet or our research paper around with you when you go shopping, it’s still easy to remember a few basics which will help:

  • Buy more fruits and veg, and in season if possible – fresher is not only usually cheaper, but requires less refrigeration, artificial growth (chemical stimulation or ‘fake’ sunlight and heating) and less handling
  • Substitute expensive meat with protein rich legumes and beans, which will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from ruminant agriculture
  • Cut out highly processed and packaged foods – these products are low in nutrients and high in energy, and less energy use and less packaging means less impact on the environment

For more complete meal ideas, you can check out the Weekly Planetary Health Menu.
Of course, before making any major dietary changes, you should consult a qualified Nutritionist or Dietician, especially those who have any pre-existing health conditions.

Overall, our study shows that Australians can eat a healthy, environmentally sustainable diet and save money while doing so.

For more information and detail, you can access the full research study here.

Tara Goulding holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Nutrition.  She lives in the Hunter Valley NSW with her husband, bunny and dog, and is currently reaping the rewards of starting a vegie garden in iso-days




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