Eat Less Junk Food to Save the Planet?

Can we get a two-for-one deal on dietary and planetary health, please? The news has been full of dispatches from the climate summit in Scotland this week. Some folks are frustrated by too much talk and too little action. The costs of a warming planet are mounting. So the University of South Australia has a simple answer. Eat less junk food to save the planet.

They served this up in a press release this week as a tool. Perhaps the timing seemed right and the headline was eye-catching. But the promise of a two-for-one deal is a bit over the top.

Better Diets and Better Food Systems

No doubt, we do need better diets and better food systems. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including obesity, are rising all over the world. The quality of our food and our food systems play a key role in this.  NCDs are the leading causes of death all around the world, and they are growing right along with the growing dominance of ultra-processed foods globally.

Without a doubt, moving the world toward food systems and diets that will promote human health is an important task. It is also quite a formidable one because all the trends are moving in the wrong directions.


Food Systems and the Health of the Planet

Greenhouse Gas EmissionsMaking our food is not the biggest contributor to the warming planet, but it is significant. Most analyses point to meat production as the biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses from agriculture. A recent study in Nature Food told us that animal-based foods contribute twice as much as plant-based foods.

But the junk foods offered up for a two-one-deal on planetary and human health in the university press release are basically plant-based – “sweets and pastries.”

So the logic of this simple promise isn’t holding up too well. This is not a big surprise. Two-for-one deals are often not what they seem to be.

Two Big Challenges

Healing the planet and healing our dietary health are two big and important challenges. However, mashing them together is not a big help for making real progress on meeting those challenges. There might be some overlap. But they are distinct tasks that each need focus from people who understand the complexity of bringing meaningful change toward meeting each of these challenges.

Eating less of chips and sweets will not save the day – or the planet.

Click here for the study that prompted this unfortunate exercise in spin. For more on better food systems, click here, and then here for perspective on the climate summit.

Chips, photograph © Ranjithsiji / Wikimedia

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November 7, 2021

2 Responses to “Eat Less Junk Food to Save the Planet?”

  1. November 07, 2021 at 11:16 pm, Chester Draws said:

    Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including obesity, are rising all over the world.

    Well. as we cure and prevent the communicable ones, then non-communicable have to rise.

    Ideally we will rub out all communicable diseases. At that point everyone will die of non-communicable ones.

    Even if we cure many of the current ones, say diabetes and dementia, then others will take over. Unless you think we are going to cure death.

  2. November 08, 2021 at 4:05 am, Mary-Jo said:

    In principle, I agree that if larger populations —especially in developed countries, but also in poorer countries where ultraprocessed foods are, somehow, pushed as they are ‘cheap’ sources of calories —eat more ‘core’ foods and less ‘junk’, that can have an impactful effect on land and water use and other factors involved in greenhouse gas emissions. I understood the foods they were referring to were more than sweets and pastries, but more all energy-rich, low nutrient-density foods, including fried foods, too much meat. Plus, what they didn’t mention, but what I think is relevant is the amount of plastics used in making, storing, and distributing ‘junk’ items! But, the messaging of the press release was hyperbolic and a real turn-off, implying some sweeping effect of diet to global warming, indeed, undermining the complexity of both challenges 1) improving dietary intake across the planet and 2) overall planetary health and the association between the two. This type of approach helps no one.