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3 Reasons the Nordic Diet Is Healthy for You and the Planet

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3 Reasons the Nordic Diet Is Healthy for You and the Planet

The New Nordic Diet (NND) is a model for a sustainable diet based on Nordic foods that achieve high scores in palatability, healthfulness and sustainability. Recent research by Henrik Saxe of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark has compared the NND to the Average Danish Diet (ADD) to explore several environmental indicators. Results of several studies have shown that the NND is a cost-effective way to reduce environmental impact through dietary choices.

In one study by Saxe and a colleague, Jørgen Deigard Jensen, the NND reduced environmental footprint relative to the ADD in 12 of 15 impact categories, while in another study, researchers discovered that the NND reduced environmental impact in all 16 impact categories examined, in addition to saving consumers €266 (US$295) annually if environmental costs are considered.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable diets as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally appropriate, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

Sustainable diets not only contribute to a lower environmental footprint but also help to account for the true costs of food production. Many organizations, such as the Sustainable Food Trust and the Lexicon of Sustainability, are working on True Cost Accounting (TCA) methods, which aim to place a value on externalized costs of food production to the environment and human health.

The cost savings of the NND were attributed to reducing the amount of meat in the diet and excluding long-distance imports. Emphasis on organic produce and local products from Nordic regions offset a smaller portion of the cost savings. The study was novel in its inclusion of the environmental impact of land use changes caused by food production, which causes greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and nutrient cycling. The study was also unique in its separate consideration of transportation and inclusion of high amounts of organic produce.

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To examine whole diets as realistically as possible, researchers included more than 300 food and beverage items placed into 34 food categories, including dairy products and meat. The environmental impact categories were examined under three hypothetical scenarios that included different models for land use change, changes in imports and transportation and production method (organic or conventional). The overall cost savings of shifting from the ADD to the NDD was 32 percent for the first two scenarios but was reduced to only 5 percent when organic production was considered in the third scenario.

By shifting from the ADD to the NND, three of the most important environmental impacts (global warming, respiratory inorganics and nature occupation) were reduced by 16-22 percent, mainly by reducing the focus on meat. Meat and dairy production are particularly water-intensive; the water footprint per calorie of beef production is 20 times higher than for cereals. Moreover, livestock impacts land use change through conversion of primary forest to grazing land.

The research concluded that sustainable diets are a surprisingly effective method of addressing environmental impact that have so far been mostly ignored by policy-makers. By placing a monetary value on environmental aspects of different diet items, researchers hope to effect policy change. According to Saxe, “if [policymakers] address the environmentally socioeconomic advantages of a given diet item in a complete diet, they are sure to also address the environmental problems associated with diet and diet items.”

But policymakers aren’t the only group that may be interested in the results of the research. Saxe says, “US$1 invested in a better diet comes back as US$2 in socioeconomic advantages when the ADD is substituted by the NND. Doubling your investment talks to politicians and businessmen alike.”

Saxe published another study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, focusing on the cost-effectiveness of a switch from the ADD to the NDD on a large scale. The study found that environmental loads from food consumption are 15–25 percent lower for the NND, which exhibited a cost-effectiveness ratio of about €73,000–94,000 (US$80,545- 103,713) per disability-adjusted life year saved. The ratio improves considerably if the emphasis on organic and local foods is relaxed.

For consumers, the cost of the NND is about 16 percent higher at current market prices, but much of this cost is offset by the positive environmental externalities of the diet shift and the reduced health burden from chronic diet-related diseases. Researchers concluded that a large-scale diet shift could especially benefit low-income consumers due to a larger cost gap and disproportionate public health burden.

More research and economic models may be needed to provide a system-wide understanding of the true costs of food production and dietary choices to human health and the health of the environment. Future studies may focus on the development of more robust TCA methodologies and footprint analyses.

In the meantime, many organizations are working to support sustainability in dietary guidelines and environmental choices by consumers. Join Food Tank in accounting for the true costs of cheap food by signing the pledge here.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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