June 17, 2021

How to eat healthy food that’s also good for the planet

Kaiser Permanente’s Food Prescription Team is developing and testing meal plans to improve individual health and help mitigate climate change.

Contributed by Deborah Cohen, MD


It’s no secret that the food we choose to eat influences the food industry and its contribution to climate change. Many of us want to eat a healthier diet while promoting sustainable agricultural practices that are good for our land, water, and livestock.

Limiting the amount of meat, dairy, and processed foods we consume can benefit the planet and our health at the same time. But how much should we reduce our meat consumption? How many and what types of fruits and vegetables should we buy?

The planetary health diet

The EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet outlines how to eat in a way that is healthy for both people and the planet. The commission is made up of experts from 16 countries who work in various fields including human health, agriculture, political science, and environmental sustainability. The guidelines emphasize eating plant-based foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and plant proteins, but also allow a quantity of meat and dairy that will have a minimal impact on the environment.

Can affordable weekly meal plans contribute to weight loss — and be good for the planet?

Kaiser Permanente’s Food Prescription Team in Southern California has been working to develop and test weekly menus, like the one shown below, that help people lose weight, meet nutrient requirements, and follow the planetary health diet for environmental sustainability.

It has been challenging to create menus that meet the recommended daily nutrient requirements, given the limits on calories, meat, and dairy products. In particular, the Food Prescription Team found it was difficult to meet the required amounts of vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and B12 without consuming dairy products or nutrient-rich fish like salmon every day.

The team tested 4 weeks of menus with Kaiser Permanente members in households where 2 adults wanted to lose weight. Over those 4 weeks, men lost an average of 13 pounds and women lost an average of 6.8 pounds. The average cost of the groceries was $38.65 per person per week, or considerably less than $2 per meal, which is within the budget allowed for people eligible for CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The team is continuing to develop, test, and refine the menus to make it easier for participants to eat healthy and sustainable foods. In the meantime, there are several ways you can eat to keep your body and the planet healthy, including eating less meat and avoiding processed foods.

Food prescriptions for weight management study

Week 1 meal plan

Meals

Breakfast

Lunch

Snack

Dinner

Monday

Eggs
Sweet potato hash
Grapes

Crunchy chickpea salad
1 whole wheat pita
(no cooking needed)

1 whole kiwi
2 tbsp walnuts

Easy salmon dish
Mexican-style side salad
Quinoa

Tuesday

Oatmeal
Flax seeds
1 apple

Leftovers:
Easy salmon dish
Mexican-style side salad
Quinoa

6 oz nonfat plain yogurt with 1/2 tsp honey
1 whole kiwi
14 almonds

Tex-Mex salad with avocado-lime vinaigrette
Quinoa

Wednesday

Avocado
Half of a pita
Yogurt with 1 pear

Leftovers:
Tex-Mex salad with avocado-lime vinaigrette
Quinoa

Mixed nuts:
1 tbsp almonds
1 tbsp walnuts
1 tbsp sunflower seeds

Stuffed peppers Squash
Black beans and rice

Thursday

Whole-grain cereal
Flax seeds
Grapes

Leftovers:
Stuffed peppers Squash
Black beans and rice

1 whole banana
14 almonds

Chicken cutlets with tomatoes and onions
Green bean salad
Brown rice

Friday

Oatmeal
Flax seeds
1 apple

Leftovers:
Chicken cutlets with tomatoes and onions
Green bean salad
Brown rice

1 whole kiwi
Mixed nuts:
1 tbsp almonds
1 tbsp walnuts
1 tbsp sunflower seeds

Black bean burger
Arugula side salad
Sweet potato (sliced and roasted)

Saturday

Whole-grain cereal
Flax seeds
Banana

Leftovers:
Black bean burger
Arugula side salad
Sweet potato (sliced and roasted)

6 oz nonfat plain yogurt with 1/2 tsp honey
1 whole kiwi
14 almonds

Brown rice with tofu and baby spinach

Sunday

Quesadilla
Grapes

Leftovers:
Brown rice with tofu and baby spinach

1 whole kiwi
Mixed nuts:
1 tbsp almonds
1 tbsp walnuts
1 tbsp sunflower seeds

Turkey burrito
Arugula side salad