Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
Winter 2006 Vol. 1, Issue 1
E A T I N G    G R E E N

Q&A with Michael A. Jacobson, Ph.D., Author of Six Arguments For A Greener Diet

1. Why is eating green so important from a health standpoint? What health gains can we realistically anticipate for individuals and the population as a whole, and in what time frame?

Eating a healthy plant-based diet reduces the risk of chronic diseases ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and cancer. The bigger the dietary change, the greater the benefit, and the sooner it would show up. An extreme example would be that people with heart disease would enjoy immediate reductions in cholesterol levels and arterial health if they improved their diets.

2. Relative to their less nutritious/healthy counterparts, fruits and vegetables are expensive. How can they realistically be worked into the average diet, and how important is it to consume organic fruits and vegetables, which cost even more? What about canned fruits and vegetables -- are they just as healthy as fresh ones? What do the recent food scares (e.g., spinach, carrot juice, beef) mean for what you are advocating?

The fact is that brand-name processed foods are often much more expensive than fruits and vegetables, but people do need to shop carefully. Some foods, like brown rice and beans, are among the cheapest foods in the store, while meat and processed foods are among the more expensive. Canned or frozen fruits (packed in juice or water) and canned vegetables (with little or no salt) are quite healthful...though they generally don't taste nearly as good as fresh produce. Growing foods organically certainly benefits the environment due to avoidance of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, though the health benefit is probably minimal. It's worth choosing organic when you can -- and when you have the money!

The recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the United States are aberrations. In general, our food supply is very safe. Though the huge farms and processors make it easier for outbreaks to be big, it is unclear how many foodborne illnesses would occur if production came from a much larger number of small farms.

3. What's the difference between grass-fed and organic beef? Why should a committed carnivore choose one over the other?

Grass-fed beef is generally leaner than grain-fed beef and uses many fewer resources (consider all the chemicals normally used to produce grain). Organic beef may or may not be grass-fed; if not, the feed would be produced in a healthier way than for conventional grain-fed beef. Again, if you eat beef, grass-fed is generally significantly healthier for your health and the environment, and organic grass-fed beef is a bit better than ordinary grass-fed. And locally grown lean organic grass-fed beef is probably the best.

4. To your point in the book, many people will choose to remain carnivores. This being the case, what are the most important dietary modifications they can make under the circumstances?

First, fill up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. When you do eat animal products, a couple of servings of fat-free milk and yogurt, some fatty fish, lower-fat chicken and turkey products, and egg whites are your best choices. Look for organically grown animal products and those obtained from animals raised in humane conditions. Cage-free eggs are where you could start.

5. What key steps in policies and programs must be taken to help implement the dietary changes you're advocating on an individual level and a national level? What changes are needed in agriculture practices to accommodate your recommendations?

A serious campaign to encourage people to consume a more vegetarian diet would include massive public education campaigns, reinforced by public policy changes. Changes could include taxing chemical inputs, such as fertilizer, pesticides and animal drugs, and using the revenue to support better agricultural practices. Dairy farmers could be rewarded for feeding their cows in ways that reduce the saturated-fat content of milk. Government-supported marketing campaigns ("The incredible, edible egg," milk moustache ads, etc.) should be ended, or the advertising efforts restricted to lower-fat, healthier foods. Better food labeling could guide people to the healthiest foods. Schools could be encouraged to offer more vegetarian options, choose locally grown and healthier animal products, and get rid of junk foods from cafeterias and hallways.

6. What are the implications of your recommendations on a global scale, for industrialized as well as for developing nations? Should developing countries that are still struggling with protein deficiencies and overall malnutrition also adopt the Eating Green approach?

Developing nations should protect the best of their historical healthy diets from the influences of western companies. As it is, fast-food and soft-drink companies market their products in wealthier nations and wealthier neighborhoods in poor countries...and those fatty, sugary, salty foods undermine traditional and often healthy diets. Governments should actively discourage diets heavy in meat, soft drinks and fatty dairy products.
That said, just because something didn't come from animals doesn't mean it's safe. Two of the most dangerous ingredients are salt and partially hydrogenated oil, the source of trans fat. And some animal foods, like fatty fish and low-fat dairy products are healthy, though producing them may be harmful to the environment.

Click here to read: Lead Article | Q&A

Copyright © 2008 Center for Communications, Health and the Environment (CECHE)
Dr. Sushma Palmer, Program Director
Valeska Stupak, Editorial & Design Consultant
Shiraz Mahyera, Systems Manager
Rohit Tote, Website Consultant