Laurann O'Reilly: Eating for the environment - how we can make a difference

This week's column in The Nationalist

Laurann O’Reilly


Laurann O’Reilly


Six top nutrition tips for boosting your immune health with Laurann O'Reilly

Laurann O'Reilly

There have been lots of mentions of global warming and the environment in the media recently and there has definitely been a shift in our weather patterns, but did you know that how we eat and dispose of food can play a huge role.

Whilst we may think that one person couldn’t possibly have an effect on this, you may be surprised how you and the collective effort of those around you can make an impact.

As Greta Thunberg says: “you are never too small to make a difference”.

Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann discusses some practical nutritional strategies on how you can play a role in eating for the environment and how together we can protect the world for our future generations to come.

- Avoiding Food Waste: Whilst there are many factors which contribute to environmental pollution, food waste is a huge contributor. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Ireland generates approximately 1 million tonnes of food waste annually, 53% of which is generated by households”, of which 60% is avoidable. Not only is it the type of waste but where it goes and how it’s treated that’s the problem. This can have an impact on our land, our waters and the air we breathe. Unfortunately, food waste which is sent to landfill, doesn’t innocently break down, but instead releases a gas called ‘methane’ which according to UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide! Our task is to reduce this through how we use and dispose of our food and reducing our contribution to landfill. Ireland has set out a climate action plan to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, so we can all play our part in achieving this.

- The Cost of Food Waste: Not only does food waste affect the environment but it can also pull on the purse strings. Wasted food translates directly to wasted money too, with Irish households throwing away “approximately 150kg of food a year at a cost of €700”. Think of the long term savings.

- Make A Shopping List: Not only is your shopping list a great way of saving money and getting organised for the week ahead in terms of meal planning, but it also ensures that you only purchase what you actually need. This can help to avoid impulse buys and unnecessary purchases which end up being thrown out and contributing to the food waste pile.

- Reduce Your Serving Sizes: ‘Portion distortion’ is a real thing with many of us having lost the ability to establish our correct portion sizes. This can result in our food serving sizes being too large, many of which ends up uneaten and in the bin. Knowing your food portion sizes is not only good for your waist, your pocket but also good for the environment too. Tip: Use your hands as a visual aid A portion of protein i.e. chicken/fish should be the size of the palm of your hand or a deck of cards (1/4 of your plate), a portion of carbohydrate i.e. potatoes/rice/pasta should be the size of your fist (1/4 of your plate) and vegetables are 2 fists (the remaining half of your plate)

- Reuse Your Leftovers: We often cook too much or have some extra food left on the plate if we have overshot our portion sizes. Not to worry, why not use the leftover food to make another meal rather than feed it to the bin. Tip: Use leftover meat, chicken or fish as sandwich fillings, in salads, make a curry or make up a batch of soup

- Understanding Shelf Life: It’s really important to understand the lifespan, or what the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) call the “date of minimum durability” of the food products you purchase, not just from a food safety perspective but also in terms of preventing food waste. After all, you don’t want to purchase a product today and have to throw it out tomorrow. Simply put, ‘use by’ means that you absolutely have to use that product within or on the stated date, consuming the product after this date may be harmful to your health as many of these products are high risk foods. Products which state ‘best before’ are less of a concern, whilst the products may lose their quality after the stated date, they may still be safe to eat for a few days afterwards, depending on the product of course.

- Donate: If you have in date, non-perishable food products which you aren’t using it may be worth donating them to charity

- Recycling – For the waste we do create we can play our part by giving it another purpose, some can be used for energy production whilst other recycled materials can be used to create new products.

- Know Your Bins: Whilst we have been recycling and using separate bins in Ireland for quite a while now, there still lies some confusion about what exactly goes in each bin. To accomplish this is a giant step forward.

1) The General Waste Bin (The Black One): As most of you know, this is your general waste bin and what’s placed in here goes to landfill. We want to try avoiding this one as much as possible.

2) The Recycling Bin (The Green One): Whilst many products will have a stamp on them stating that they’re recyclable some may not. What can go in the bin includes, clean plastic containers, drink cans, food tins, cardboard and magazines.

3) The Composting Bin (The Brown One): Speaking of food waste, this bin is where you can put organic material such as plate leftovers, gone off foods, coffee grounds and also your lawn cuttings.

4) The Glass Bin: Use your glass bins which are located in most large public car parks and parks. These include clean wine/beer bottles and empty jars. Be sure to divide them by colour too as this makes the recycling far more efficient.

- Reduce Your Use of Plastics: Plastic pollution is one of our biggest environmental challenges. According to National Geographic “every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations”. They say that this is the equivalent of “emptying 5 garbage bags full of garbage on every foot of coastline in the world”. Although plastics contain different compounds, it’s estimated that most plastics can take at least 400 years to break down. Plastics not only pollute our waters but affect the livelihood of animals such as birds and fish as well as entering the food chain. Remember we can all make a difference.

1) Reusable Shopping Bags: Most of us have a collection of plastic shopping bags at home, but purchasing good quality, eco-friendly shopping bags is definitely a good investment. It’s also helpful to get into the habit of always taking them with you, as you never know when you’re going to run into the supermarket for one thing and come out with ten things (we’re all guilty of it).

2) Reusable Water Bottles: I always recommend people to invest in a good reusable water bottle.
Not only is it a great way to monitor your fluid intake, you can take it with you on your workout and whilst on the move. It is really important that you don’t reuse regular plastic water bottles as they contain a synthetic compound called ‘Bisphenol A’ (BPA) which can become unstable when exposed to heat, even sunlight. BPA can then pass into liquids and foods in the containers and can be harmful to our health. Tip: Purchase a water bottle with a ‘BPA Free’ stamp (often found underneath the bottle) and fill it to your heart’s content.

3) Reusable Tupperware: I also recommend people to purchase good quality tupperware boxes which can be used as part of batch food preparation and for storing leftover foods. Tip: Similar to your water bottle above be sure to invest in tupperware boxes that have that ‘BPA Free’ stamp. Remember heat can destabilise the plastic and if you’re putting hot food into the containers or reheating your food, you want it to be safe. I use the ‘Sistema’ brand, they’re a good investment, they’re also freezer and dishwasher safe too.

- Incorporate More Plants: Most of us aren’t eating enough fruit and vegetables so aiming to increase our intake not only provides our bodies with valuable nutrients but it’s also good for the environment too as it helps to ‘cut our carbon footprint’.

- Choose Fairtrade Products: The term ‘FairTrade’ and products which carry the FairTrade mark mean that those products are produced at levels which are socially and economically fair and environmentally responsible. For instance, ‘Fairtrade Ireland’ works to promote fair trading practices between Ireland and developing countries.
A good place to look for a Fairtrade is in coffee shops (particularly international chains) or when purchasing tea and coffee for home use.

- Shop & Support Local: Did you know that shopping and buying your food locally can have a huge impact on the environment as it reduces your ‘food miles’. Foods can often travel thousands of miles to reach us and require the transport to do so, this contributes to fuel and air pollution but also requires excessive use of packaging to do so.
Think about some of the amazing local produce that we have here in Ireland, for instance rhubarb, which requires little packaging and also has a reasonable shelf life too. Buying your food locally reduces this carbon footprint, helps the environment and supports local businesses too.
Tip: Why not check out some of your local Tipperary Food Producers here https://www.tipperaryfood

For further information contact Laurann at or see
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.