HOW DIETITIANS CAN IMPROVE PLANETARY HEALTH

Nutrition has been an interest of mine since adolescence, but passion for well-being of the environment has always been there in the background. Being in nature provides a kind of peace and joy that can’t be found anywhere else, and I want that to be preserved for my children and their children just like I remember it as a child myself. In order to act upon two of my greatest passions in life, I find myself here advocating for planetary and human health combined.

For this dietitian, planetary health has always made sense. No healthy planet, no healthy people.

Our population is growing quickly and future generations have to be fed too! Those people are our kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, and other loved ones to come.

There is a growing community of dietitians and other health professionals that really give a damn about health and nutrition beyond the human body, on a global level. Planetary health is about being inclusive of all other bodies and the earth body as a whole.

After all, the sad reality is our climate is changing as much as is the science we fundamentally stand beside. Some reports say we only have 12 years to address climate change, most particularly by reducing carbon emissions.

Like with any grave diagnosis, many dietitians are inclined to spring into action with preventative interventions rather than treating the symptoms when the 12 years is up. Right? Prevention first, treatment of symptoms for better quality of life to follow if preventative measures fail.

As a profession, we can all agree that wellbeing and health through nutrition is our vibe. Whether it’s as a NICU dietitian, foodservice manager, anti-diet dietitian, or private practice dietitian, we are all connected with food probably a little more than the average person.

We should set the standard for food because we are the food experts. While we may not all work in areas where food is grown, transported, processed, or sold, we talk to people about food almost daily. Scientists and environmentalists are making forecasts and doing their parts, so in order to help save the world dietitians can be part of the solution too.

We as registered dietitians are trusted health professionals with more knowledge about food’s effect on health than any other health professional. Anybody can say their two cents about food (and whatever fad diet they’re promoting for the time being), but what we say about food is the most valued. Our knowledge is based on science and facts.

If we are going to feed everyone on our planet and those to come, I think registered dietitians are critical to the solution. We should desire to be involved and we deserve to be helping with the food solution.

There are some super simple ways we can do just that! All of us can incorporate at least one of the following into our practice or in our own lives.

How dietitians can help combat food waste

1 in every 8 Americans and 1 in every 6 people worldwide face hunger, yet 40% of food produced is wasted. It takes no rocket scientist to conclude that these numbers just don’t add up.

We produce enough food to feed the world but it’s just not always in the right hands. There are 2 categories of food that never make it into our bellies:

– food loss – any food that is lost in the supply chain between the producer and the market.

– food waste – discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption.

There’s a slim chance that the average dietitian working in any kind of patient care setting to help with the issue of food loss, unfortunately. But food waste is something we can all help prevent.

When food is wasted, all of the resources that went into that food are wasted. In addition, most food waste goes to landfill where it rots and releases greenhouse gas emissions in return.

What can you do in your one-on-one or group practice today?

As dietitians, we can help combat food waste by teaching our clients about various helpful topics like proper storage of food and understanding food labels like “best by”.

Healthy air, water, and food are all contributors to our overall wellness. Greenhouse gases compromise our air quality.

Dietitians can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging eating less meat (particularly red meat), eating less processed foods, eating local and in-season produce/other foods, and encouraging clients to grow their own food (whether at home or as a community garden). Many of these things we are probably already promoting with little effort as they are also principles we know are better for human health. If you work in foodservice you can’t implement all of these into your own institution!

Some industrial farming and agriculture practices affect our water and food quality. Excessive nitrogen runoff from heavy fertilizer use into local waters can create dead zones, affecting fish and other water life. This can affect fishers and populations that thrive on seafood for nutrition and capital income. Some pesticides have been shown to have adverse effects on our health, especially farm workers and their families.

Organic agriculture practices run like a circular economy, mimicking nature. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are strictly forbidden for organic foods to be called “organic”. Organic farmers are more creative in their growing and pest control measures, which are more environmentally friendly. See my other blog posts about organic farming to learn more about this.

When applicable, we can gently encourage organic foods for the client without shaming them if they can’t afford or don’t have sufficient access to these foods.

Dietitians can help on a broader level by influencing policies; working/volunteering for food banks, soup kitchens, grocery stores and foodservice operations of all kinds; making monetary donations to organizations that work toward improving food systems, food availability, food quality, and food production; get involved with farmers markets to provide education to the public or learn a thing or two from farmers; and study environmental nutrition or sustainable food systems to be a bigger part of the fix.

I know we are all in different niches and have different individual callings and personal interests. Not all of these can apply to everyone, I am very well aware. But small, slow changes do add up. We know that! We can put interventions in place and set goals, monitor and evaluate, then do it all over again. We never give up on our patients/clients and we especially shouldn’t on the biggest one that houses us all – our world.

References:

  1. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global Warming of 1.5-degree C. Summary for Policymakers. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
  2. Food and Agriculture Organizarion of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/
  3. World Hunger Education Service. https://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts-2018/

Written by Stacy Ramirez, MS, RDN, LD

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WWW.PIXABAY.COM

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