How Cutting Back on Sweets and Pastries Can Help Save the Earth

by | Read time: 4 minutes

Have you made a New Year’s resolution to curb your sweet tooth? Both your body and the planet say “thank you.”

Your main motivation for pushing away sweets in 2022 may be to slim down your waistline, spare a few teeth or better protect your heart. But a new study suggests that cutting back on sugary foods and drinks also can boost the health of the environment.

The Environmental Impact of Processed Foods Represented by Person Holding Mesh Bag of Apples and Basket of Greens |

The environmental impact of eating sugary and processed foods

Harvesting certain types of foods contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study out of the University of South Australia. That is partly due to the water, energy and pesticides used in growing these types of foods.

The packaging from food products that ends up in the garbage dump also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, as such materials release methane into the atmosphere when they decompose.

The researchers say that in particular, producing highly processed foods — including pastries, ice cream. sugar-sweetened drinks, alcohol and processed meats — accounts for large percentages of the greenhouse gas emissions related to food.

The study focused on food production in New Zealand and Australia, but the lessons apply anywhere. So, curbing your desire to grab that pint of Ben & Jerry’s from the grocery store freezer may help reduce your carbon footprint, no matter where you live.

Finding the right balance

A commitment to eating more healthful foods is always a good idea, whether you are doing it to save the earth or to enhance and extend your own life.

“In general, Americans need to eat more vitamins, minerals and fiber, and less saturated fat and sodium,” says Caroline West Passerrello, a Pittsburgh-based registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Caroline West LLC.

However, Passerrello dislikes the notion of singling out certain types of foods and labeling them as “bad.” Instead of giving up pastries and sweets completely, she recommends a measured approach of considering your “overall dietary pattern” and making choices that are healthful, yet balanced enough to let you indulge in all the foods you enjoy.

“In my practice, I avoid labeling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ because a food by itself is just nutrients,” says Passerrello, who also is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Everyone has a different nutrient need, and even those can vary day-to-day.”

When one of Passerrello’s clients is concerned about a certain food and suggests eliminating it from his or her diet, Passerrello tries to learn the motivation behind this decision.

“We explore what it is about the food they don’t want any longer and determine the root cause of this desire,” she says.

In many cases, the inclination to stop eating a food stems from something other than the specific food itself. “So, eliminating the specific food won’t address the true concern my client is experiencing,” Passerrello says.

For example, she notes that a client once said she could not keep ice cream in the house because she would eat the whole carton in one sitting after dinner.

“We came to the realization that she was not eating nearly enough food throughout the day,” Passerrello says. “The root cause of her ice cream intake was in fact her body telling her — when she finally stopped moving and focusing on work and chores — that she needed more nutrients.”

Over time, the client began to add in more foods to breakfast and lunch. “When she was consuming the nutrients her body needed, she was able to eat a serving or two of ice cream at night and then stop because she was satisfied,” Passerrello says.

Alternative ways to serve your sweet tooth

So, before eliminating pastries and other sweets during the new year, Passerrello recommends trying to first find ways to enjoy such foods in a more healthful manner.

“I often encourage them to eat what they want, in a mindful way,” she says. “That goes for all categories of foods and beverages.”

If you still want to choose treats with less saturated fat and sodium — and more vitamins, minerals and fiber — Passerrello suggests the following alternatives to processed foods:

However, she also emphasizes the need to look at such dietary changes from a wider perspective.

“Specific foods and dietary patterns are only part of the picture,” Passerrello says. “How we think and feel about food, and how we move our bodies also needs considered.”

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