The 11 Healthiest Foods for the Planet

Tread more lightly on the planet, and rack up a few nutrition bonus points while you do.

April 16, 2013

Here’s an Earth Day challenge for you: Eat. Eat a lot. And, specifically, eat a lot of these 11 foods, which are actually doing the planet a favor every time they find their way into your shopping. How is that possible? Because instead of simply consuming more water, pesticides, or fossil fuels like most highly processed foods in modern American diets, these foods support healthy ecosystems while they’re doing your body good. They help farmers stick with traditional, planet-friendly farming practices while discouraging toxic chemicals that pollute you and your drinking water. So this Earth Day, revamp your diet with these über-nutritious, tree-hugging foods.

11 best foods for the planetFair-Trade Quinoa


Benefit for Your Body: This ancient South American “pseudo-grain” (called that because it’s technically a seed) is packed with more protein than any other grain, and on top of that, it’s a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids, acids your body can’t produce on its own to build muscle and create more protein.

Planetary Perk: Supporting organic quinoa farmers could save the Andes. Growing international demand for this supergrain is leading farmers to abandon traditional methods of quinoa production and turn to larger farms that will increase the need for pesticides and mechanized farming, according to a recent study by Bolivian agricultural researchers. Traditional quinoa farmers rotate crops to restore the soil and use llamas to restore and fertilize the land, says Kerstin Lindgren, campaign director of the Fair World Project at the Organic Consumers Association. Fair-trade producers pay farmers better prices for their crops, allowing them to stick with these traditional methods, she says. “Quinoa is a great, very nutritious food,” she says. “We need to be paying fair prices that allow farmers to take care of the land.”


11 best foods for the planetHemp

Benefit for Your Body: Hemp is another plant that, like quinoa, supplies the body with all nine essential amino acids. The fatty acids in hemp seeds and hemp milk also boost the immune system.

Planetary Perk: Hemp is a highly sustainable crop that is inherently “organic.” It doesn’t seem to be very attractive to pests and it’s commonly grown without pesticides, even on big industrial farms. Growing more hemp could wean people off of wood pulp, since the fibers could easily take its place in paper and composite wood furniture.

Sign up for the FREE Organic Gardening Newsletter.


11 best foods for the planetShade-Grown Chocolate

Benefit for Your Body: It lowers your blood pressure, and it’s full of flavonols, antioxidants that fight the inflammation that can trigger heart problems. Neurological studies also suggest that these same flavonols may ward off depression and age-related declines in brain function. Need more reasons to eat chocolate?  One chocolate-loving researcher reports that countries with higher cocoa consumption also had a higher number of Nobel Prize winners.

Planetary Perk: Cacao trees are native to rain forests, where they grow wild under shade canopies that provide homes for migratory songbirds and other diverse wildlife. But increasingly, rain forests are being clear-cut and replaced with huge industrial cacao plantations that don’t cater to birds. As a result, the number of pests increases—along with the use of toxic, synthetic pesticides. Those pesticides endanger tiny little rainforest pollinators called midges, without which the world’s chocolate supply wouldn’t exist, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Opt for shade-grown chocolate to save the midges and possibly your next chocolate bar.

Try This Recipe: Chocolate Chip Cookies.

11 best foods for the planetLentils

Benefit for Your Body: Bite for bite, lentils are the best source of vegetarian protein you can find, boasting more of the muscle-building nutrient than 3 ounces of salmon. Plus, they’ll satisfy more than 60 percent of your daily fiber requirement.

Planetary Perk: Ditch a beef burger just one day a week in favor of a filling veggie dinner where lentils are the stars, and it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. Lentils are the most planet-friendly source of protein, the group says, because they pack so much nutrition into a tiny package that doesn’t require nearly the amount of land, water, and other precious natural resources that are pumped into concentrated animal farms.

Yum: Italian Lentil and Broccoli Stew


11 best foods for the planetHoney

Benefit for Your Body: Honey is often touted as a cure-all for everything from burns (put raw honey on a burn as soon as possible to speed healing) to cuts and scrapes (honey’s natural antiseptic properties allow it to work a bit like hydrogen peroxide). And research by food scientists at the University of Illinois found that honey, especially dark honey, slowed the action of LDL “bad” cholesterol in test-tube studies. Buckwheat honey seemed to have the biggest effect.

Planetary Perk: Want to be a devoted locavore? Make honey your sole sweetener. Every region in the United States can support its own local honey industry, which means you aren’t spewing greenhouse gases or burning fossil fuels to truck sugar, agave, and other popular sweeteners to your doorstep from the tropical climates in which they grow.

Learn More: Raising Backyard Honeybees


11 best foods for the planetWild Boar

Benefit for Your Body: Wild boar is chock-full of vitamin B, which can help ward off depression and just, in general, keep you in a good mood. A 3-ounce serving provides more than 70 percent of the recommended amounts of niacin, a B vitamin that lowers bad cholesterol and boosts the good, and thiamine and B6, two vitamins that boost your energy levels. It’s also rich in zinc, which fortifies your immune system.

Planetary Perk: They may have “wild” in their name, but they’re definitely not endangered. These stealthy Eurasian natives are invasive to the United States, and they number in the millions. The menacing hogs crash through forests, scarfing up acorns that could have one day become mighty oak trees and ripping out precious forest-floor flora, including endangered native plants that keep the ecosystem healthy and able to support life. They’re no friends to farms, either. One report found they are responsible for up to 40 percent of sugarcane destruction on Southern farms.

Dig Deeper: Other Tasty Invasive Species


11 best foods for the planetShade-grown Coffee

Benefit for Your Body: Antioxidant-loaded coffee is rich in cell-protecting choline and potassium, and chemicals contained in the beans have been shown to affect your metabolism in a way that wards off diabetes. Choosing shade-grown offers even more protection. Shade-grown coffee helps preserve the rain-forest canopy, which pulls carbon from the air and stores it in the soil so it never reaches the atmosphere, where it would contribute to the greenhouse effect. Dealing with climate change will help tone down allergies, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus, ailments all worsening as the climate heats up.

Planetary Perk: Look for the gold standard—Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird-Friendly seal. This means farmers grew coffee organically in 100-percent shade-grown conditions, not just mitigating climate change, but also saving precious wintering grounds for some of your favorite migratory birds.

Learn More: Best Organic Sweeteners


11 best foods for the planetGhee

Benefit for Your Body: Also called “clarified” or “drawn” butter, ghee is the result of melting butter over a low temperature to boil away excess water and remove milk fats. Ghee made from the milk of pasture-raised cows contains concentrated levels of cancer-fighting and heart-protecting conjugated linoleic acids.

Planetary Perk: Manure management from cows raised on organic, pasture-based systems reduces manure methane emissions by 60 to 80 percent. Methane is more than 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Learn More: Best Alternative Cooking Oils


11 best foods for the planetFlax

Benefit for Your Body: Flax seed is loaded with fiber and cancer-fighting magnesium, and adding just 2 tablespoons of ground seed to things like oatmeal, salads, or smoothies also provides a fast and easy dose of brain-boosting vitamin B1. The 8th century European ruler Charlemagne thought the health benefits of flax so great, he passed laws requiring his subjects to eat it!

Planetary Perk: Used for both food and fiber, flax crops don’t require irrigation or heavy chemical pesticide and fertilizer use.

Sign up for the FREE Organic Gardening Newsletter.


11 best foods for the planetOrganic Kefir

Benefit for Your Body: Kefir is like drinkable yogurt, absolutely teeming with protiotics that help safeguard your immune system, knock out colds, and keep your digestive tract healthy and ready to remove toxic chemicals from your body. Just be sure it’s low in sugar to reap the ultimate belly benefits. When your kefir comes from grass-fed cows, the milk used to make the drink contains significantly higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and could even lower your heart-attack risk.

Planetary Perk: When you choose organic kefir, you’re supporting a way of farming that allows cows to live longer and reduces the feed required and the wastes generated, according to a recent dairy study by the Organic Center. Buying dairy from organic, pasture-raised small farmers also keeps toxic pesticides out of local waterways and the food supply.

Dig Deeper: 7 Essential Foods for Your Gut


11 best foods for the planetSnakehead fish

Benefit for Your Body: Snakehead fish, a delicious invasive species native to China, Russia, and Korea, can more safely satisfy your craving for swordfish, a seafood pick high in brain-damaging mercury.

Planetary Perk: This fish features a primitive lung, allowing it to survive on land, wiping out frog, bird, and crustacean populations along the Potomac River and the freshwater canals of southern Florida. Since snakehead fish aren’t naturally supposed to be in the United States, many critters living here have no natural defenses to evade the foreign fish.

Keep Reading: 8 Foods That Will Make You Smarter.