The routine of modern-day life for most of us involves regular trips to the grocery store and three meals a day. The regular patterns of our diet can be a source of comfort or a rushed necessity. But is eating the same familiar foods – often the same recipes, products, brands, over and over, day by day – good for us?
As nutritious as a “well-balanced” diet may be, there are good reasons to strive for a more diverse diet.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the acclaimed Nigerian writer, was not referring to plant and animal ecosystems when she wrote, “Diversity is not about feeling included, it’s about feeling valued.” Yet, she’d surely agree. Unless biodiversity is valued, it will lose ground, quite literally.
Now, new research is showing that valuing diversity in the natural world has important implications for human health.
A study in the journal PNAS examines the relationship between aquatic biodiversity and human health. Researchers found that aquatic ecosystems, such as rivers, lakes, and oceans, provide a wide range of nutritional benefits to human populations.
According to the study, consuming a diet that includes a variety of fish, seaweed, and other aquatic foods can help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, these foods are rich in important nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, and iron, which are essential for human health.
The researchers also found that consuming a diverse range of aquatic foods can have positive impacts on the environment. By promoting the consumption of a wider range of fish and other aquatic foods, fisheries and aquaculture can diversify their operations and reduce pressure on overfished species.
Protecting the biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems is essential for continued access to nutritional benefits. Yet, climate change and human activities have already impacted the health of the world’s water. Conservation and sustainable use simply haven’t been the priority.
Land surfaces, where humans live, haven’t fared any better. Scientists are concerned about the health of the soil, grasses, and forbs that many animal species depend on for their dietary nutrition.
Dr. Forest Isbell, professor of ecology at the University of Minnesota, notes, “Land use changes and overexploitation are driving changes in biodiversity and ecosystems in many parts of the world.”
Isbell has closely read the research published in PNAS and thinks the findings are likely to be replicated in other ecosystems. He’s involved in studies that test the effects of biodiversity in grasslands that provide essential forage for grazing livestock. “It’s an important question,” he says. “Due to widespread farming and overgrazing by livestock, we have seen significant biodiversity loss in many grasslands. Just as people benefit from a diverse diet, so too do our livestock. By studying how biodiversity of grasses affects nutritional content of forage for herd animals, for example, we will be better able to inform policies and practices designed to protect land-based ecosystems.”
Human health depends on a diverse diet that delivers vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, water, and carbohydrates. It’s essential to place high value on the availability and quality of these components, as demonstrated by growing evidence of a vital relationship ecosystem biodiversity and human health.
Sadly, a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 95 percent of the calories consumed worldwide come from a mere 30 species. Farmers cultivate only about 150 of the 30,000 edible plant species. And 90 percent of the food from domesticated livestock comes from only 14 animals.
What can health-conscious consumers do? In the next trip to the grocery store, think about the choices and try pick out a diverse range of foods, including from aquatic sources.