What's on offer at the hospital cafeteria? On a recent visit to the biggest healthcare institution in my town, I discovered that much of what's being promoted and served is food that is questionable for both personal and planetary health.
Beef-based meals were being explicitly encouraged in several areas of the cafeteria, while lighter and plant-based options were less visible. This despite the fact that beef produces far more greenhouse gases than any other common type of protein. And it's despite the fact that excessive meat consumption undermines personal health and contributes to diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, that fill many of our hospital beds.
'Planetary Health' should be a priority.
Meanwhile, Vancouver Coastal Health, which owns and runs the hospital, has declared "planetary health" as one of its pillars (missions or goals).
I highlight this example to show that, if you work in healthcare and want to prioritize food for personal and planetary health, there are opportunities waiting for you to act.
Act at whatever 'level' works for you.
In brief, we can act for change: (I) in our own lives, (II) among friends and family, (III) in our communities, and (IV) at higher levels for policy change -- to bring better food habits into healthcare.
Level I: Individual
The two most impactful food-related steps we can take for climate are to waste less food and eat less meat & dairy. Both of these need to be tackled through high-level policy. But let's start at home. Take care in your grocery-shopping and take seriously the idea of minimizing your food waste. As for animal-source foods, there's no strong environmental reason to eat only plant-based. But consider cutting your consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, and fish to just one or two days a week, and dedicating yourself to learning about plant-based versions of your favourite meals.
Level II: Patients, colleagues, family, friends
Not every physician has the time, expertise, or motivation to talk one-on-one with patients about food. If you'd like to try, start by offering basic resources such as from the recently-revised, now-healthy-and-sustainable Canada Food Guide, as in my latest blog post If you're asked for more information, say you're on a learning curve yourself but that wasting less food, and eating less meat, are excellent steps for climate and human well-being. If patients or others want more detail, you can direct them to resources such as those in my last blog post.
Level III: Community organizations and institutions
Your staff association, medical clinic, or (yes) hospital cafeteria. Your health authority. Your local town council. A neighbourhood restaurant frequented by healthcare professionals. All of these are options for you to approach with suggestions for more plant-based, and less animal-based, snacks and meals.
Level IV: Policy
Your local health authority may also have declared an intention to promote planetary health. Write to officials there, or to your Minister of Health, or to any other policy-making body, and encourage them to put the ideas into practice.
Two big steps: #1: More plant-based / less animal-based. #2: And less food waste.
For climate, I've said that the two most impactful steps we can take are to eat more plant-based and less animal-based, and to waste less food. Why is that?
Our agriculture and diets are so heavily meat-centred, that industrial production of beef, chicken, and pork now uses most of the world's agricultural land (and more than its share of scarce fresh water). Using all that land means having to continue cutting down Amazon and other rainforests -- which also undermines plant and animal biodiversity on Earth.
It's important to know that the soy bring grown in the Amazon is not for tofu-burgers. It's for livestock feed. More than 75% of soy grown in the world is purely to fatten animals for meat. (Hannah Ritchie 2021; Poore and Nemecek 2018). So if you want to save the Amazon, don't eat less tofu. Eat less meat.
When the numbers are crunched, it turns out that animal agriculture creates well over half of all food-related greenhouse gases (GHGs), while food loss and waste creates another one-quarter of food-related GHGs. That's more than 3/4 of food-related GHGs accounted for by these two tragic aspects of our food systems. Too much meat, and too much waste.
How can we bring these realities more into healthcare? Please help your patients, colleagues, and all of us by commenting below.