Did you know that what we eat not only affects our health, but the overall health of the planet? Making a positive impact for wildlife can be as simple as buying one thing over another at the grocery store.
Us conservationists want to know: Is it really a bad idea to eat meat? Don’t we need to eat fish for Omega-3s? And what really is the best diet for the planet?
Enter our expert: Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD and Huffington Post contributor (that’s a lot of expertise, right there). Dana helps people around the globe identify the role that their dietary choices play in sustainability, climate change and personal health.
She’s been kind enough to answer some questions for us. Welcome, Dana!
Let’s get to know you more first! What is your current title, and can you give us a brief description of it?
I have a dual title; I am both a clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA medical center and also an adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA fielding school of public health.
In the course that I teach, I incorporate articles, papers, any other relevant information on sustainability, conservation, and sustainable diets. With my patients, I try to incorporate education and instruction on plant-based diet.
Amazing! You are a woman of many talents. What made you decide to tie conservation into your work with nutrition?
Nutrition and conservation are intimately and intricately tied to one another. There is absolutely no mutual exclusivity between the two of them. What we choose to eat affects not only our health but our earth’s health.
For example, eating too much meat not only increases the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity; it also increases the risk of climate change from methane emissions, water use, and land use changes.
Choosing to eat seafood affects the ocean’s health first by what we put into the ocean, and second by what we take out of it and how we do it. So, nutrition and conservation must be discussed together. The way I see it, there really is no choice. I believe that all nutrition professionals, and even medical professionals, should be engaging in this discussion.
I completely agree! We’re all wondering: What type of diet do you think best serves the environment?
In my opinion, (based on a fairly extensive review of the literature supporting this) a plant-based diet is the best type of diet for the environment. It uses the least amount of resources, releases the fewest emissions, and requires the least amount of land.
I completely agree with you. The movie Racing Extinction touched on that, too. I think that a complete diet change may seem a bit daunting to some people. What is one simple change we could make in our diets that would benefit nature, wildlife, or the environment in general?
If a person really feels that he or she cannot move to a fully plant-based diet, then a simple change would be to significantly reduce the portion of animal product consumed. For example, instead of eating meat at both lunch and dinner, give up the meat at least once a day. Similarly, if you eat meat or fish, or any animal products, instead of eating the “typical” portion of six or 8 ounces, reduce that to amount to one or two ounces. After all, we can really only absorb up to 30 grams of protein at any one time anyway. If you are going to eat animal products, treat it as a condiment, not a main dish.
One thing worth noting is that today, there are so many products available that are excellent substitutes for animal-based products. For example, there all different types of nondairy milks available now enough to suit anyone’s pleasure.
Exactly! I’m lovin’ almond milk these days.
We saw in your recent Huffington Post article that you believe that sustainable fish don’t exist. Do you think we should avoid seafood altogether?
I’ve had a number of interest groups and lobbyists contact me about that article. All I can say is that the literature I read seems to support the fact that eating seafood is unsustainable; particularly wild fish and wild shrimp. There are some farmed fish, tilapia for example, that may be a more suitable option for human consumption. However, on the whole, the nutrients that we supposedly get from fish the omega-3 fatty acid’s, we can obtain easily from plant-based sources. In fact, that is how fish make omega-3’s themselves — from plant-based sources such as algae.
So, do I think people should be eating fish? Not really. But, I also understand that cutting a food completely out of one’s diet is difficult. I guess my recommendation would be that if you are going to eat fish, eat one that is low on the totem pole; and definitely find out where it is sourced from.
Do you have any other comments or words of wisdom for us?
Diet is one of the hardest things for people to change. I know that. I’ve learned that in over 12 years of experience as a dietitian. I found it troubling and difficult to find ways to make salient for people the reasons we need to change our diet both for our own health, and for the earth’s health. I think that the more we can get the message out there, the better off for everyone. That’s all I’m trying to do.
Cheers to that! Thank you so much for your dedication to our health and the health of the environment, and for answering our many questions!