Thanks to Megan Evans, public health registrar (ST1), for putting this piece together. Head to the bottom of the bottom of the page to find out a little more about Megan.
Living healthily and living sustainably have frequently been considered as two separate concepts, but with the emergence of planetary health this is no longer the case.
So, what exactly does planetary health mean?
This relatively new term refers to not only maximising the health and wellbeing of people, but doing so in a way that protects and supports the natural resources that we all rely on, such as the oceans, land, and climate. Planetary health has been described by some as a new discipline, one that “broadens health research to include the external systems that sustain or threaten health” (The Lancet: https://www.thelancet.com/infographics/what-is-planetary-health).
This is an important and timely topic because while in many ways we are healthier than ever before, the planet and our natural resources have taken the hit.
This is evident through the diverse and devastating impacts of climate change, the ever-increasing volume of plastic waste in the oceans, and the toll that intensive farming and agricultural practices can take on the environment. The broad and sweeping concept of planetary health actually goes a little further, also embracing the economy, industry and energy production; processes and systems that we, as a civilisation, depend upon.
The Lancet Planetary Health’s editor-in- chief, Raffaella Bosurgi, puts it this way: “Planetary health offers an exciting opportunity to find alternative solutions for a better and more resilient future. It aims not only to investigate the effects of environmental change on human health, but also to study the political, economic, and social systems that govern those effects” (Global Health Now: https://www.globalhealthnow.org/2017-09/whats-difference-planetary-healthexplained).
Planetary health represents a new way of viewing health and wellbeing, challenging the traditional boundaries between medical and other disciplines. Instead, it focuses on how these various concepts are connected and may influence each other, and how to encourage people to consider planetary health in their everyday lives.
What can we do about it?
The good news is that healthy diets and lifestyles can also be very good for the environment, and therefore taking steps to look after ourselves can result in positive effects on the planet and natural resources. Diets and lifestyles that have relatively low impact on the environment lead to food and resource security, meaning they are sustainable for future generations.
The UN describes sustainable diets as “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (http://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/background/sustainable-dietaryguidelines/en/). All sounds pretty good, and the even better news is that there many simple ways you can easily consider planetary health in your everyday life.
The steps below offer practical ways to protect and support the environment and wider society, a number of which have the added bonus of individual health benefits.
1. Waste less.
It’s estimated that up to 30% of food that is bought is thrown away, with the big offenders being products such as bread and bagged salad. The Food Standards Agency has calculated that food waste costs the average household in the UK £470 per year. That’s a lot of money! By planning meals, taking leftovers for lunch, and freezing unused products, we can easily reduce the amount of food that we throw away.
2. Say no to extra packaging.
So many shops sell produce covered in plastic wrapping. Sometimes this is a necessity, and prevents food from going off too quickly, but often that extra plastic offers very little benefit and is quickly thrown away. Instead, try taking your own reusable sealable bags, or pop your fruit and vegetables straight into the shopping basket.
3. Buy local.
Instead of stocking up at the supermarket, you could try picking up locally produced ingredients from your high-street green grocer or butcher. By consuming locally produced goods you not only reduce carbon emissions created by transporting and refrigerating produce, but you also support local, independent businesses. Try to get into the habit of checking the place of origin for all your food products.
4. Grow your own.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you could try growing your own produce. A small section of the garden, a balcony, or even a windowsill can provide enough space to grow fruit or vegetables to supplement your weekly shop. Again, this can reduce the amount of carbon emissions associated with your food, and even save you some pennies.
5. Eat seasonal recipes.
In a globalised world, food products and goods can be easily shipped around the globe. The carbon footprint this creates is huge. To counteract this you could try buying and cooking seasonal ingredients that are readily available where you live, this keeps things fresh and reduces your carbon footprint. (Try some of Hazel’s recipes and keep an eye on the seasons best produce)
Instead of jumping in the car for quick journeys, try building time into your day to walk instead. Not only does this offer physical health benefits, it also provides the opportunity to practice some mindfulness or meditation for a few minutes per day. Reducing carbon emissions and pollutants from vehicle use is also much better for the environment.
7. Use reusable cups and bottles.
Many cafes now provide free tap water refill stations and offer discounts for those using a reusable cup. These simple changes offer a way to reduce the amount of single-use products that we regularly use.
8. Choose pesticide-free.
There are several reasons to be critical of the widespread use of pesticides. Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing significant concern. A recent, large-scale study suggested that bees exposed to this chemical were harmed and became unable to survive their normal winter hibernations. Bees play a vital role in pollinating plants and flowers, as well as around 75% of global crop species (including almonds and apples). Choosing pesticide-free foods helps protect these little pollinators.
9. Consume less meat and dairy, and more plant-based foods.
Rearing livestock has a significant impact on the environment. The mechanisms involved in producing, processing, and shipping meat uses significant volumes of fertiliser, feed, water, and pesticides, and can lead to the release of huge volumes of greenhouse gases. There is growing momentum behind the concept of adopting a “flexitarian” lifestyle, that is cutting down on meat and fish in favour of plant-based foods. I’m not advocating cutting meat and fish out of your diet completely, but to consider eating a smaller quantity of higher quality produce. Reducing meat intake (particularly red or highly processed meat) can have a number of health benefits, and also helps to protect the planet.
10. Buy certified food.
Many important nutrients are found in meat and fish. When purchasing these types of products, select those which are guaranteed to have been reared and fished in ethical and sustainable ways, such as choosing sustainable fish. This prevents the over-fishing of certain species and ensures fish stocks are sustained. The Marine Conservation Society offer up to date lists of sustainable fish: https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/search