If you’re motivated – like we are – to preserve planetary health, you’ll hopefully be reassured to know that the Functional Medicine (FxMed) principles you’re likely already adopting are also helping you reduce your own climate impact.
And it’s not just your own climate footprint you’re affecting: With every choice you make you send signals to industry, to your neighbors, your family, your colleagues, that collectively add up to more changes than you’d expect. Your spending, and perhaps even more importantly, the example of your actions, creates ripples that shouldn’t be underestimated – for climate as well as health.
In this article, we share 4 ways that FxMed aligns with climate change goals and consider what else we might be doing to support climate health – don’t miss our eye-opening section on the most environmentally-friendly meat choices towards the end!
This article is one of a 2-part series. Click here for Climate Change Series Part 1 – Planetary Health Equals Personal Health to learn about how human and planetary health are intertwined.
Let’s jump in! Here are 4 ways in which FxMed practices also reduce our climate impact, either directly or indirectly. If you have more to share, please add them in the comments below!
1. Direct Impact – Fewer Pesticides
The FxMed argument: Pesticides are known to adversely affect the nervous system, even at low dose chronic exposure levels – linking to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and impairing childhood neurodevelopment. Pesticides can also affect our hormonal systems – sex hormones, thyroid hormone and insulin signaling, for instance – that can contribute to a variety of health concerns including infertility and obesity. They have also been linked with an increased risk for cancer.
The climate change argument: Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are often made from fossil fuels and their production and use creates NO2, a greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, climate change is also forcing many farmers to use more pesticides to combat the increased vulnerability of their plants to pathogens that thrive in warmer temperatures – consumer pressure must play a role in reversing this trend.
The bottom line: We recommend choosing organic or non-GMO foods. Get to know your local farmers – some smaller farm operations will follow organic practices but cannot afford the relatively expensive organic certification process. Choose natural pesticides for your home and yard.
- Environmental Working Group Guide to Pesticides in Produce
- Non-GMO Project and labeling
- Natural pesticide alternatives
2. Direct Impact – Less Plastic
The FxMed argument: Chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates, commonly found in plastics, are known endocrine disruptors. Long term potential outcomes of exposure include adverse effects on reproductive health, weight gain, early-life development, prostate, PCOS, endometriosis and some cancers. The World Health Organization has one of the most comprehensive reports on exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their adverse health effects.
The climate change argument: The continued increase in plastic production, driven by consumer demand, contributes to global warming through its fossil fuel-intensive production, transportation, and incineration. According to Yale Climate Connections, if plastic production and incineration continue to increase according to current expectations, ‘greenhouse gas emissions will increases to 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050.’
Even more well-reported is the plastic pollution of our oceans, which is harmful to many ocean species including marine plankton. Plankton are important custodians of the earth’s climate since they play a key role (just like trees do) in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By some estimates, marine plankton levels have reduced by 40 percent in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, their decline promotes a vicious cycle where increased levels of CO2 and rising temperatures further harm plankton populations.
Finally, plastic also produces methane when exposed to sunlight – especially polyethylene, the plastic used in grocery bags. Methane is another potent greenhouse gas (see more about methane below).
The bottom line: Minimize plastic packaging – this includes at the grocery store (plastic bags, plastic-wrapped foods) and in your kitchen (plastic food containers – choose glass or stainless steel instead). Especially watch out for single-use consumer plastics which have the greatest environmental impact, and plasticizers that sneak into personal care products such as nail polishes, shampoos, cosmetics, perfumes, sunscreens, skin emollients and insect repellents.
A note from DrKF – Connecticut has JUST transitioned away from single-use plastic bags. I am thrilled! We did it. We made a big change, and frankly, it doesn’t strike me that it was a particularly big deal for folks- just a mild initial annoyance at worst. What’s next? How have you done with this change?
3. Direct Impact – Support for Local Produce
The FxMed argument: A quick tour of the produce section in your local big-chain grocery store reveals a dazzling array of fruit and vegetable logistics – items arriving from Mexico, California, the Caribbean, Peru, Spain, Kenya and more.
But, produce that has to travel longer distances is typically picked before it has time to fully ripen and develop its optimal nutrient profile. And the travel time itself results in greater losses of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The vitamin C content of broccoli, for instance, can be cut by half when it is shipped from country to country. Often, more nutrient-dense food options are less able to travel well anyway – think delicate red leaf lettuce rather than hardier but less nutrient dense iceberg lettuce.
The climate change argument: The transportation of fruits and vegetables via road, rail, sea or air all has an environmental impact due to emissions generated by the mode of transport. Climate-wise, transport by air is worse than other kinds. Typically, it’s the most fragile produce that has to be air-freighted, and therefore incur some of the worst carbon footprints.
The bottom line: Choose local grown when you can and when it makes sense in the context of a varied and clean diet.
4. Indirect Impact – Nurturing a Systems Mindset
Those that appreciate the amazing power of Functional Medicine understand that the key to its success is its focus on systems. Functional Medicine practitioners study the many subsystems in the human body and their interactions and it’s why they might identify that one individual’s gut health is influencing their depression diagnosis, or that food sensitivities can be underpinning another’s neurological diagnosis, or that yet another’s higher carbohydrate diet can connect their insulin dysregulation, PCOS and cancer. Their job is essentially to sleuth out those causative and contributory connections and correct any ‘errors’ in those systems.
With this background, it’s not a giant leap over to the system of human ecology, and the interconnections between people and their environment. And, of course, vice versa. Once a systems mindset has been learned, it cannot be easily unlearned. That higher level of awareness tends to have a trickle effect
Could We Do Better?
The answer is unquestionably ‘yes’. We can always do better. Actually, the desire to do better is a common characteristic of those practicing Functional Medicine. I routinely hear this explanation from those that have moved beyond conventional practice as to why they want to practice Functional Medicine. Those in this field tend to be questioning, knowledge-seeking, reflective, humble, and with a strong wish to keep moving the practice of healthcare forwards. It is certainly how we feel in our clinic and this approach permeates our clinician education programs.
So how could we, as Functional Medicine providers, continue to reduce our planetary impact? Here are three ways:
Reduce Paper and Packaging
The environmental impact of paper is significant – by some estimates more than 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We have already seen how plastic packaging has a significant environmental impact too.
Using an electronic health record for patient/client charts is a big step forward in reducing paper. Sharing information with patients/clients via an online portal is another.
We can also think about dietary supplements, which are used frequently in FxMed. Choosing the 120 capsule bottle over the 60 capsule version of the same supplement, when it makes sense, is an obvious way to cut down on packaging. Judicious use of high packaging-to-product blister packs is another.
Some supplement companies are using containers made from recycled plastic, and some are even experimenting with plant-based containers. Glass, and recycled-glass containers are good options. As supplement consumers, we also need to take care to recycle plastic and glass supplement containers. Holistic Primary Care has a nice review of evolving environmental practices of nutritional supplement companies here. It’s worth a read and may help you identify companies whose practices align with your environmental goals.
Embrace Remote Consultations
Personal travel for health reasons is another area that we can work on. While there are many benefits to an in-person health consultation (and it generally remains a requirement for physician diagnosis or prescription), there are many ways to use remote consultations too. This eliminates the emissions-heavy drive or even plane-ride that would be needed to visit your FxMed practitioner. Not to mention the time saved!
In our clinic, we support remote consultations whenever it makes sense to do so. In fact, our nutrition team operates entirely remotely via phone and video conference! Fully trained in FxMed (and all either certified by the Institute for Functional Medicine or in progress with that certification), our nutritionists are fully-equipped to handle even complex cases without the need to see a physician – and our physicians are very available to consult on nutritionist-led cases as needed.
Tweak Our Meat Recommendations
Although we advocate the use of plant-rich diets with very few exceptions, meat features in many therapeutic diets used in Functional Medicine. It’s for good reason – legumes and grains (the mainstay non-animal protein foods that often replace meats in vegetarian diets) can be problematic foods for some of our patients.
However, livestock rearing is notoriously harsh on the environment, contributing an estimated 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
What can we do?
First of all, we can recommend meats and other protein sources with a lower carbon footprint, as this table shows:
Table: Carbon footprint of different protein sources
|Food||kg CO2 eq* released per kg of meat/produce|
|Almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts||1.4-1.5|
*CO2 eq refers to ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’, a common unit for describing all greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. More about CO2 eq here.
The main culprit behind the contribution of livestock to climate change is methane production. Methane is produced by ruminant animals (which is why they feature so high up the list above), a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – over a 20 year period it traps 84 times more heat.
Interestingly, experiments are showing that changing what cattle eat can change their methane emissions. For example, feeding cows probiotics can reduce methane emission by 50 percent. Wow! Other promising food components are seaweed, molasses, and onion extract. Methane digester systems are being adopted by farms already – find out if your meat producer uses one!
Secondly, don’t overeat animal foods. Most individuals will be able to limit meat intake to 3-6 oz per day (quite a reduction compared with the USA daily average of about 10 oz). Bring in non-meat protein sources that fit your diet to balance out your intake – nuts and seeds are particularly beneficial sources if you tolerate them* and have many other health benefits. If whole grains and legumes work for you, then include them too*.
In Functional Medicine, 99.9% of the time we’re recommending varied, plant-heavy diets, even as they do include some meat. Even our implementation of Paleo and ketogenic diets have an emphasis on plant foods.
*Check with your Functional Medicine practitioner if these foods are right for you – food sensitivities and excess carbohydrates in the diet are some of the most common causes of health issues.
What do you think? Share your thoughts and additional tips below…
While heartened by the overall tone of this post, I was disappointed to note the absence of insect sourced protein as a viable and very sustainable means of protein supplementation for those not allergic to shellfish. The production of insect protein such as crickets, mealworms, etc. is much less water and energy intensive, and the quality of inputs can be managed easier for a higher quality, more healthful food. I’ll let you do your own research, but it is a shift we are going to have to make sooner rather than later. Trusted information outlets such as yours are instrumental to bringing ideas such as this into public consciousness.
Thank you, Rich. We do mention crickets in the post briefly. But you’re correct- a more thorough discussion of clean, alternative protein sources is in order. DrKF