Can altruism help your diet?

by SARA on May 25, 2010

Not too long ago, I became a huge fan of Meatless Mondays, a phenomenon wherein people do a little to help the environment (and their health) by going meatless once a week. By doing so, researchers say, the average American will actually cut down on his or her meat intake by 15%, a number that happens to correspond with the percentage of the world’s meat resources we consume as a nation (despite the fact that we make up only 5% of its population). What that move also does, though, is reduce an individual’s saturated fat intake by about 15%. Pretty win-win deal there.

Well, that’s what other researchers are starting to think, too. Last night I found a new study out from Stanford University showing that people were far more likely to make healthier diet choices in order to protect the planet or support a whole foods movement than to improve their own health.

To prove their case, the Stanford scientists created a special course for undergraduates, one that focused on food-related social and environmental issues. Students read books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Ethics of What You Eat and watched documentaries along the lines of Food, Inc.

Simultaneously, the researchers also tracked students taking more traditional health classes–from nutrition to health psychology. At the end of the quarter, only the students in the special class had improved their eating habits. They had started eating more fruits and vegetables and less high-fat meats and sugars.

While you could argue that the students who took the special course may have had a stronger, more specific interest to begin with, the researchers said that all the students had actually expressed about the same opinions and interest levels at the quarter’s start.

I have to admit, I really fell for this study. It’s inspiring to think that this movement toward whole, less-processed food is making a real difference in how we behave. And that those actions are, in turn, rewarding our health. Definitely win-win!

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June 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

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Jen May 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm

It is nice to think that many of us make dietary changes for the good of others and not themselves (though our health is important too!). My husband has made dietary changes twice after watching food movies. He doesn’t eat a lot of meat anyway, but after we watched “Fresh: The Movie” he gave it up completely for a while. We haven’t watched “Food Inc.” yet, but I’m tempted to suggest we do to see if he goes off meat again!

SARA May 31, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Food, Inc. made not just me–but my whole family–stop eating chicken that didn’t come from an organic farm. The movie’s so disturbing, but the flip side is you really get a sense that it’s possible and necessary to start changing things. I’d absolutely recommend it!

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