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Wealthy Americans’ Diet Is Healthier, But Worse for Earth, Geographical Sciences Study Finds

By Rachael Grahame ’17

A new study by University of Maryland researchers and international colleagues shows that wealthier Americans tend to eat healthier than lower-income Americans—with less sugar and more meats, dairy and fruits—but have a worse impact on the environment.

“Individuals of higher socio-economic status are responsible for higher environmental impacts because they consume more impact-intensive protein foods, including dairy and livestock products, and seafood,” said Kuishuang Feng, associate professor in the Department of Geographical Sciences.

The researchers also found that making dietary changes capable of decreasing food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2%, land use by 24% and energy consumption by 4% is technically attainable within the budgets of 95% of Americans. It is not, however, something easily achieved by 38% of Black and Latinx individuals in the lowest income and education groups.

Some solutions are clear: “For the poorest households, nutritious food affordability can be increased by targeted income support in combination with nutritional assistance,” Sun said. “The current regulatory and policy frameworks in the food sector [can also] be revised to support healthier diets and set up adequate monitoring and accountability systems to ensure compliance.”

Other solutions are more ambiguous, Baiocchi said.

“If a lot of people can afford [a healthier diet with less environmental impact], what should we be doing to make sure that people take advantage of this win-win situation where they can improve their diet, get healthier possibly, and have a lower impact on the environment?” he said.

The study also included geographical sciences Associate Professor Giovanni Baiocchi and Professor Laixiang Sun; Pan He at Cardiff University, United Kingdom; and Klaus Hubacek at University of Groningen, Netherlands.

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