September 29, 2021

How to eat to save your health and the planet

By Lisa Jane

The Traffic Light System guides the way

It’s such a big question - What foods are healthy for us yet don’t destroy our planet?

Choosing healthy foods for your family can be a juggling act. While we shop, we are trying to

  • Consider nutrition
  • Reduce additives and preservatives
  • Come up with a variety of meals that the family will eat
  • Watch the budget
  • Dish up tasty, healthy snacks

All while worrying about food miles, pesticides, and the destruction of wildlife habitats – it’s not easy!

We know consuming too much unhealthy food is the leading cause of health problems including obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes to name a few.

But what we eat also impacts the environment by influencing food production which affects land use (eg clearing of native forest) and greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s why researchers have created a “traffic-light system” that organize foods according to their health and environmental impact.

By substituting, reducing, or eliminating the most harmful foods from our diet, we can benefit our health and the planet.

Traffic light system 

Researchers have organized the foods in the following traffic light system according to their effect on human health, impact on the environment or both.

Green means GO! 

Green indicates foods that are both nutritionally and environmentally beneficial.  These are foods you can feel good about buying and eating -

  • nuts
  • fruits
  • some seafood
  • whole grains
  • vegetables
  • legumes
Green foods

Amber means slow down (and choose carefully)

Amber indicates foods that are less ideal than ‘green’ ones because they are slightly nutritionally or environmentally detrimental. Foods in this group include

  • most poultry
  • dairy, including milk and yogurt (unsweetened)
  • cooked grains
  • egg-based foods
  • vegetables from greenhouses
amber foods

Red means STOP (and THINK)

Red indicates foods we try to minimise in our diet because they have significant adverse environmental or nutritional impacts. Foods in this group include

  • processed meat
  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • confections - sugar-sweetened beverages, lollies, syrups, alcohol, fruit drinks, energy drinks, spreads and toppings, ice-cream and Ice confection
  • cheese-based foods
  • farmed salmon (as opposed to wild caught)
  • pastries, pies, baked goods (high in sugar, fat and carbs)
  • fried foods including snacks and crisps
  • anything with palm oil
red foods

By eating more ‘Green’ foods, being mindful of ‘Amber’ foods and eliminating or reducing ‘Red’ foods we are empowered to make dietary changes that lead to healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.

NOTES - The researchers found that plant-based foods are generally better than animal products both for the environment and human health.

Individual dietary needs such as gluten-free, dairy intolerant etc are not reflected in this guide.

When they consider the environmental impact of each food, the foods are judged on farming practices in the USA.

How to Personalise the Traffic Light System

This example of the Traffic Light System is just a guide and may not accurately reflect individual circumstances.

For example, if you know the beef you buy is organic, hormone-free and grass-fed (in comparison to beef finished in a feedlot and pumped with various chemicals for growth and their ‘health’), you may be justified in moving it into your ‘Amber’ section.

If you have food intolerances of any kind, you can tweak this accordingly.

How to Use the Traffic Light System

The idea is to maximise the percentage of your food that is ‘green’, moderate how much is ‘amber’ and minimise the ‘red’ by substituting with foods from the ‘green’.

One approach is to look at what percentages of each zone you are eating from and make some healthy changes if need be. For example, if you see 50% of what you consume in an average week is in the ‘red’ zone, aim to reduce the amount of those foods and eat more from the ‘green’ zone.

You will be doing yourself, your health, your family, and your planet a favour too.

For further information about swapping unhealthy food for healthy food see the articles on Sugar, Ditch the junk food, and Kick the cravings

Lisa Jane

I believe in a holistic approach to health and fitness and making small, incremental changes to improve your lifestyle. It isn’t about how you stack up against everyone else, it's about how you feel about yourself! It’s more than your exercise or your food, it is your attitude and your well-being!

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