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Is the path to health the same path to environmental sustainability? 6 things you can do to improve both.

Every day I read the horrors of humanity’s impact on the natural world, and more than ever such stories seem to be of increasing severity and frequency. Within me this stirs a deep conflict which is; I have dedicated my life to caring for people, but what am I professionally and personally doing to care for the very thing that sustains us all?

As a result of this conflict I have come to the theory that perhaps the path to our best health is also the path to our most environmentally sustainable society. Is the best food for us also the best farming practices that will heal the land? Can our investments make us money but also support human and planetary health? Is conservation crucial because nature still holds so many of our yet-to-be-discovered medicines? Does the highly questionable factory farming of animals require huge quantities of antibiotics that is a major factor in antibiotic resistance whilst at the same time creating enormous effluent pollutant run-off? Is moving more and travelling less also good for reducing air pollution? Is it plausible that meditation and connecting with others in our community will make us more sensitive to the harmful consequences of our single-use-consumerist modern lifestyles?

It is utterly disappointing that such a topic has become a political agenda but it is not the aim of this article to delve any further into politics. What I would much rather cover is what you (yes, you!) can do immediately and easily to make a positive difference. So let us apply Pareto’s principle here; that 20% of the input yields 80% of results. What 20% of effort can we put in to produce 80% of the results that allow for the active progression of our culture to a mutually healthy and sustainable one? That is – what would a lazy person do if they HAD to live sustainably?

Well, first off, I am not convinced it is what most people initially think – is it really growing your own food, driving an electric car and having solar power? Maybe and maybe not. The reality is we spend most of our time sleeping or working to earn money, and any spare time just living a little bit. With the restrictions on such a life – how can anyone reasonably expect us to do more? Hence, any realistic suggestions here must be set up in such a way as to be near-automatic, and fortunately many of them are.

1. Divest your superannuation to an ethical investment company

The Australian people’s total superannuation by 30 June 2012 was $1.40 trillion. So where is your money going? And without knowing it – are we doing more harm than good? Let me tell you the story of Dr Bronwyn King, a Radiation Oncologist in Australia. In 2010 she learnt that her superannuation from her hospital was flowing to tobacco companies through the “default” option. Isn’t it ironic that a cancer specialist spends their life treating cancer but at the same time invests their life’s savings (likely millions) into causing the cancer? So she lobbied the super organisation to divest from tobacco, which they at first refused, but she brought together enough doctors and raised enough awareness that eventually after a year they divested from tobacco. Since then, Dr King has almost single-handedly convinced over 30 Australian super funds to divest billions of dollars out of tobacco companies. She is now CEO of Tobacco Free Portfolios, which aims to eliminate global tobacco investment. What. A. Legend.

Unless you have specifically requested otherwise, it is highly likely that your money is in a ‘default’ fund and is being invested into industries that lead to the undermining of our health, like tobacco, alcohol, gambling, weapons manufacturing and industries with unacceptably low standards of workplace conditions. However, you can move your money (as easy as completing a one pager) into socially responsible investment (SRI) portfolios which most superannuation organisations now have as an option. There are many references demonstrating that since their inception 20 years ago SRI indices perform about the same as the traditional market. A fund comparison by Choice magazine in 2013 showed some of the ethical investment funds have performed better than many other “mainstream” or non-ethically selective funds.

2. Change banks

Have you ever wondered what your savings are doing in that bank account? Well, they are not just sitting there – they are being used by your banks for whatever purposes they see fit. The big 4 banks (ANZ, Commonwealth, Westpac, NAB) all have fairly questionable investment portfolios for the most part (except the cute community soccer teams in their ads), whereas smaller regional banks and credit unions often invest in small business and community start-ups – so it pays to ask your bank the hard questions and if necessary – break up with them (don’t worry – they will get over it).

3. Calculate your emissions and offset them yourself

In 2009, The Lancet concluded that “climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. But, despite government inertia on this topic, it is actually extremely easy to calculate your own carbon emissions online and then pay ~$20/month to organisations that offset those emissions with various projects – tree planting, soil sequestration projects, renewable energy projects, sustainable farming education etc. Personally, I think if your emissions are worth $20/month, then pay a bit more and become a net ‘sinker’ of carbon – e.g. pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than you emit. A few options are CNCFClimate Friendly and World and Trust, but there are many more to choose from.

4. Switch your home/business energy provider to a renewable energy sourced provider

Energy accounts for a major source of air pollution, which is a major health risk accounting for almost 800,000 deaths a year in Europe alone. There are more and more energy providers that now source 100% of their energy from renewables, and are the same price as standard providers. Check out this link to find one for your state.

5. Donate to an organisation that you believe in

Why have a dog and bark yourself? That is; if someone is willing to campaign on the areas you believe need progress, then why not financially support them? For example, one of the SINGLE BIGGEST positive impacts we can make is to donate to organisations that empower women with education and autonomy (especially sexual autonomy). The evidence is clear, the greater the education and autonomy that women have the better the outcomes for them, their children, the society and natural world at large. They are more likely to use contraception, lower rates of infectious illness (e.g. HIV), marry later, have the choice to pursue careers, have fewer children, have higher childhood survival rates and better child health, leading to the stabilisation of populations and lower burden on the natural world. Another win-win.

6. Choose your food, and in particular protein, wisely

Overall, we need to return to real food, as local as possible, and stop wasting so much of it. Globally, we waste about a third of our food which is borderline criminal considering nearly one billion people go to sleep hungry every night. In addition, processed food is high in sugar and low in nutrients whilst at the same time being based on large ecologically barren monocultures wrapped into disgusting levels of plastic. As far as protein goes there are two important points to make here but much more can be said.

  1. Either reduce your animal protein intake and change to plant based proteins (lentils, chickpeas, nuts etc.), and/or
  2. Choose your animal based proteins more carefully.

The EAT Lancet report indicated that food production is responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use. Foods sourced from animals, especially red meat and grain fed livestock, have relatively high environmental footprints per serving compared to other food groups, impacting greenhouse gas emissions, land use and biodiversity loss.  Replacing 100% of beef intake with poultry reduced mean dietary greenhouse gas emissions by 35·7%. When replacing all beef, pork, or poultry intake with plant-protein foods the greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 49·6%, mean Healthy Eating Index increased by 8·7%, and dietary costs decreased by 10·5%.  When choosing meat, the EAT Lancet Commission recommends sourcing meat from farmers that practice regenerative agriculture (and I will add permaculture in here too). This type of farming contributes to carbon storage in the soil, keeps water away from pollutants, and provides room for local biodiversity to flourish.  Farmers like Joel Salatin have developed techniques that treat the animals well in free range and grass fed ways but also builds top soil (which sinks carbon into the soil and hence can act as a net benefit), improves water tables, regenerates biodiversity and at the same time provide meat that is healthier with higher omega 3 rations, higher range of antioxidants as they are feeding on more varied grasses, improved fat profiles and no antibiotics or growth hormones. To be clear though, permaculture and regenerative agriculture practices, like agroforestry, do not always require livestock.  There are also feral animals like rabbits, deer, camels and pigs that are ecologically destructive, so whilst these products are available at specialist butchers, they are also not easy to obtain en masse.  I often get asked about fish and whilst some locally caught thriving species is fine, I stay away from tuna and other similar species as the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that almost 80% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. The difficulty with this is that regenerative agriculture and permaculture sources of meat can be more expensive and are not common with 95-99% of livestock being factory-farmed or intensively raised.

Overall, considering the vested interests from both the meat and livestock industry and the grain industry, it can be very hard to get an unbiased picture of the best way to eat for both environment and health.  Both industries directly or indirectly produce evidence to support their industries.  So, my fallible and not 100% confident interpretation of the reoccurring themes from all the sources (including meat and vegan proponents) I have reviewed is as follows: massively reduce food waste and intensive farming practices such as confined animal feeding operations and intensive grain monocultures and significantly increase consumption of regenerative farming produce, support reforestation programs, and eat local and organic if possible (though even these points are not entirely agreed upon).  The produce from regenerative agriculture should be predominantly whole food and plants, but can also include regenerative and grazing crop rotation livestock, especially from land not suitable for crops.  From here it is easy enough to then practice what diet biopsychosocially-culturally-spiritually suits an individual best, whether that be vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, pegan, paleo, low-carb or ketogenic, as it is likely the plates would look surprisingly similar; about 50%+ above ground plants and the remaining 50% whole food and healthy forms of plant or animal protein, fat and/or whole-grains, all sourced from regenerative farming practices.


Whilst this is not a complete list nor a complete examination of the nuances of each point, it is a starting point and I hope it helps to heal you, your patients and our beautiful natural world.

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Lifestyle Medicine provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, whole-system approach to the prevention and reversal of chronic and lifestyle-related diseases through modification of the behavioural, social and environmental drivers. If you support this approach to healthcare, help us advance its reach by joining the movement.