Written by Helen Chu, MS RDN, US Registered Dietitian
Daily food choices can have a huge environmental impact

Healthy eating habits have obvious health benefits. Our food choices have impact not only on our health but also the environment. In the fight against climate change, we often overlook the impact of the food we eat.

Climate change is a change in average weather, like rising temperatures, frequency and intensity of extreme natural events such as heat waves, heavy rains, hurricanes, drought.  Hong Kong’s average temperature has risen by 0.8-degree Celsius per decade since the 1980s.  

Climate Change and Older adults

Everyone is affected by climate change at some point in our lives.  However, some are more vulnerable than others.  Older adults experience a greater impact of climate change on their health.   The heat wave can trigger complications in the elderly with chronic conditions such as heart, lung disease.  The higher level of ozone and air pollution worsen asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and other respiratory conditions. This may lead to an increase in emergency ward visits and hospital admissions.

Food Production - Green House Gas (GHG) emission

The consumption of red meat is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Scientific reports show per gram of protein, greenhouse gas emission generated from the production of beef, lamb is 250 times more than those from the production of legumes. Cows, lamb emit large quantities of methane from digesting food.  Methane is a powerful global warming gas. The GHG generated from the production of pork and poultry is 40 times higher than that from legumes.  In contrast, the production of legumes and vegetables doesn’t generate near as much pollution.

What can we do?

One does not have to be “meatless” to combat climate change.  Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based eating plan - rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legume, whole grain, organic and fresh food. The animal protein food includes mostly fish, chicken once a week and red meat rarely.  Studies suggest that if more people move towards this style of eating, it can help to reduce food-related GHG emissions up to 55% by 2050.

Even small steps can make a difference
  1. Eat less meat - Moderating the amount of intake, such as smaller portions, and instead of daily, reducing the frequency to 4-5 times per week.  Eat more fish, chicken, avoid processed meat-ham, bacon, sausages, hot dog. If we reduce intake to ¼ lb. of beef a week, it would be like taking 4-6 million cars off the road per year.
  1. Cooking at home - try new ways to cook
Incorporate more plant-based proteins, i.e. beans, legumes, soy products (tofu, bean curd sticks), into your cooking. Experiment ways to cut down or substitute meat with beans, lentils, soy products.  For example:
  1. Add mushrooms, beans or tofu into meat patties, maopo tofu, thus decrease the amount of meat served,
  2. Meatless soup stock – use lentils, chestnut. kidney beans, cashew nuts, peanuts, peas, soy, blackeye beans
  1. Eating out – vegetarian options
Sandwich – Avoid fast food and processed meat such as ham egg sandwich, a hot dog where possible.
Lunch – For rice plate, noodle soup, choose plant-based food, such as tofu, chicken, instead of meatball, beef stew, etc.
Dim Sum lunch - Choose a few vegetarian items, such as vegetarian dumplings/steam buns, rice noodle rolls.
Hot pot – Use less meat, more vegetables, legumes, grains
When restaurants notice the demand for vegetarian items, then more such options will be available on the menu.
  1. Shopping
Plan the shopping list that includes more beans, peas, lentils, vegetables, and that helps suppress the impulse to buy sales items on meat or processed foods.

What we eat matters one’s health and the health of the planet

If we adopt an eating pattern which includes less red meat but more plant-based protein – legumes a few times a week, more fruits and vegetables, it is best overall for personal health as well as environmental protection.

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