Personal trainers have a responsibility to address the dietary habits of their clients. We can make plenty of suggestions, share articles, and raise awareness of the benefits of eating. a certain way, but we should also be prepared to address the environmental impact of the eating habits we recommend.

Healthy Bodies and Healthy Planet

The human brain is not the largest of animal brains on the planet, but it is the most densely packed with cells– approximately 100 billion as a matter of fact. It takes approximately 20% of a person’s caloric expenditure to keep that brain healthy and active, even on days where we spend more time watching sitcoms on the couch than working, being active, or having clever thoughts. Food is energy..and energy can be expensive.

As fitness professionals, we generally focus on the direct nutritional effects of our client’s food habits. But there are a number of aspects of food and the food industry as a whole that affect our health. This article is the 2nd of a three-part series where we will briefly examine the economic impact of food, the environmental impact and variables (as this article will address), then finally the nutritional considerations of the way we eat.

Energy and Enjoyment

It’s important to note that, as humans, the caloric and nutritional value of food is not the only variable we care about. Much like most of the things we create, buy, and use, there is social value and identity associated with food.

At the turn of the century, owning more than one pair of clothes was how you could express your position and wealth to the rest of your community. But now, as materials and large quantities of food are more easily accessible, the so-called “aspirational class” shows their position by wearing athleisure, drinking organic oat milk, or maybe by sending their kids to schools that have gardening classes.

Our individual and cultural identities play a big part in the way we eat; meat-eating can be associated with strength, masculinity or wealth. Large meals of heavy food might be the way the elders of our families show love. But we can still experience the joy and value in the way we eat while considering the environmental impacts.

Raw or Cooked?

Biologist Richard Wrangham, author and researcher, theorizes that fire was the invention that propelled human evolution forward over the last 1.8 million years. As you can imagine many animals eat far more calories than humans. A lion, for example, eats approximately 9000 calories a day. But most of that goes to preserve base-level functions and their huge bodies. They also use a large portion to digest and metabolize the food itself.

Some academics believe that adding meat to the diet of early humans was a major step in evolution. However, Wrangham and colleagues, believe it was more specifically the ability to cook meat and other foods that allowed for the increase in brain cell density providing humans with a cognitive edge on survival and growth. Cooking food, among other health, safety, and preservation issues helps to “pre-digest” and allocate more readily available nutrients per calorie. Now an early human can fuel their body but still preserve energy for neurological functions.

Wrangham stresses however that although eating meat did provide an advantage for those who had access and means, it was the ability to prepare foods in general that made a big difference. With the advances in food availability and the science we have access to today it is possible to be healthy on a raw food diet, but Wrangham also argues that it is less efficient and could quite possibly offer too few calories to persons who practice raw food diets. A diet varied in greens, legumes, nuts, grains and fruits, and veggies provides more benefits when lightly processed, as in cooking or blending.

Putting any moral or policy implications aside, meat can be a very energy expensive product. For example, 1350 Kilograms of soy and corn can feed enough cattle to support one person, or 1350 Kilograms of soy and corn can directly feed 22 people. The energy lost while feeding and raising cattle can be very environmentally expensive (Physical Geography Peterson, et al.). The type of industrial farming that our society utilizes, by and large, favors meat production and utilizes the aforementioned soy and corn as feed to raise livestock.

Monoculture farming, utilizing large swaths of land to raise only one crop over and over, reduces the type of biodiversity that soil generally needs to be healthy. In turn, monoculture farms have to utilize various pesticides and herbicides, which can cause long-term afflictions in consumers. The land itself will also suffer from erosion and poor irrigation.

Environmental Impact of Fuel and Delivery

Agriculture policy and contemporary culture have promoted the growth of industrial farming. Specialized farms have increased the amount of pesticides in use. Equipment that runs on fuel has gotten larger and more plentiful, and the distance food has to travel to reach its final destination has increased. says that “meals in the United States travel about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate”. Measuring the logistical benefits of our food transportation is complicated. However, the problem this presents is that the impact of industrial farming on the environment reaches further than the farmland or even the water source, that is used. Fuel use and transport pollution became a major problem when food sources were moved further and further from communities.

It’s also important to note that because food has to travel such long distances, an increasing number of preserving or ripening techniques are used so that food is more “purchasable” at market. A study was conducted to measure the difference in travel distance for foods from a major distributor compared to those sold at a farmer’s market by farmers. As an example “Apples: 1,555 miles vs. 77 miles”.

What Personal Trainers Can Do

It might be unrealistic to expect folks not to buy things from industrial farms at all, but every little effort helps. Patronizing farmer’s markets will help keep more revenue in the hands of small, local farms and reduce the negative environmental impact of your food choices. Growing your own food is emotionally fulfilling, but also makes a huge impact on the environment. And last but not least, don’t hesitate to visit those farmsteads on the side of the road offering produce; your purchase not only supports local small businesses and families, but is an effort in making a smaller environmental impact.

Andrew Gavigan

Andrew Gavigan is a recognized speaker in the fitness industry, master trainer, Creator of the mostFit Core Hammer, and serves as Director of Education for Aktiv Solutions. He is a NASM and NFPT Certified Personal Trainer and Behavioral Change Specialist and has developed comprehensive fitness and exercise programs for health club & workplace wellness facilities. Andrew’s passion centers around user engagement and human behavior.