A healthier US diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and health care systems

Abstract

The standard US diet contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) from both the food system, and from the health system through its contribution to non-communicable diseases. To estimate the potential for diet change to reduce GHGE and improve public health, we analyzed the effect of adopting healthier model diets in the USA on the risk of disease, health care costs, and GHGE. We found that adoption of healthier diets reduced the relative risk of coronary heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes by 20–45%, US health care costs by US$B 77–93 per year, and direct GHGE by 222–826 kg CO2e capita−1 year−1 (69–84 kg from the health care system, 153–742 kg from the food system). Emission reductions were equivalent to 6–23% of the US Climate Action Plan’s target of a 17% reduction in 2005 GHGE by 2020, and 24–134% of California’s target of 1990 GHGE levels by 2020. However, there is potential for investment of health care savings to result in rebound up to and greater than 100%, which would increase net GHGE. Given the urgency of improving public health and of mitigating GHGE over the short term, the potential contribution of diet change, and the options for reducing rebound, deserve more research in support of policy.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the valuable comments provided by Daniela Soleri, Pål Börjesson, Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, and two anonymous reviewers for Climatic Change; the help of Nathan Donnelly in the initial stages of research; and the financial support to EH by the Swedish Energy Agency and Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. A preliminary version of our analysis of GHGE in the health care sector was presented at the Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector conference in 2014.

Author Contributions

Order of authors was determined as follows: corresponding author is the last author, other authors are listed in order of the significance of their contributions. DAC developed and framed the research, and reviewed methods and analyses; EH and QG helped refine the research; EH created the SAD and HADs, calculated food system GHGE, and assembled the RR data; QG, EH, and PS analyzed the RR data; QG assembled and analyzed the health care cost and health care system GHGE data; DAC, EH, and QG wrote the paper; all authors reviewed the paper.

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Correspondence to David A. Cleveland.

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Hallström, E., Gee, Q., Scarborough, P. et al. A healthier US diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the food and health care systems. Climatic Change 142, 199–212 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1912-5

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Keywords

  • Health Care Cost
  • Food System
  • Diet Change
  • Food Category
  • Relative Risk Estimate