Many diets focus on weight loss and improving overall health, but have you ever considered adopting a diet that promotes environmental health too? Learning how to eat sustainably can benefit your health, your budget, and the planet.
What does it mean for a diet to be sustainable?
For a diet to be considered sustainable, food should be produced in a way that protects the environment and has a low impact on biodiversity, ecosystems, and natural resources. A sustainable diet should also be “nutritionally adequate, safe, healthy, culturally acceptable and economically affordable.” (1)
Emissions created from food production are more damaging to the environment than transportation emissions. (2) In order to determine the sustainability of a food system, researchers evaluate land use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer and contributing to global warming. (3)
Beyond environmental concerns, current food systems also create many unhealthy food choices that can be detrimental to our physical health, decreasing life expectancy and leading to various chronic diseases.
Let’s dive into 10 tips on how to eat sustainably for your own health and the health of our planet.
1. Eat More Plants (and Less Meat)
Animal agriculture is generally an inefficient system. Animals need room to graze and therefore take up ~ 70% of all agricultural land, causing unnecessary deforestation. (2) Greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture significantly exceed emissions from vegetable protein agriculture. Emissions released from the production of the animal feed alone exceed the emissions released from producing plant-based proteins. And in the end, animals require twice as much food as what they provide as meat! (4)
A plant-forward diet generally uses less land, water, fertilizer, and energy than a diet high in animal products such as meat and cheese. In fact, producing plant proteins requires about 100 times less water than producing animal proteins!
Reducing the amount of meat we eat and replacing it with plant-based proteins can significantly reduce land use, water use, and harmful emissions. (4) For example, if we replaced all of the beef hamburgers sold annually in the United States with a 30% mushroom/70% beef burger, the resulting reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking all of the cars in San Diego off the road! (5)
This example might sound extreme, but every food establishment or individual that modifies their burger can make a difference; there is no impact too small. You can try replacing some red meat with mushrooms in our ground beef & mushrooms taco recipe (it’s delicioius!).
But where will I get my protein if I eat less meat?
Soybeans and soy products such as tofu and tempeh, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are all great sources of plant-based proteins. Soybeans and soy products provide all of the essential building blocks our bodies need and are much better for the environment than most animal proteins. (2, 6)
Do I have to cut out meat completely?
You might not want to say goodbye to meat entirely, and that’s okay! Shifting the types of animal proteins you consume and how frequently you consume them can play a significant role in your diet’s overall environmental impact.
When choosing animal proteins, select options that produce fewer carbon emissions such as farmed fish, eggs, chicken, and pork. Conventionally raised beef and lamb create the highest amounts of carbon emissions, whereas nuts, peas, beans, and tofu are the lowest producers overall. (7)
For big meat eaters, start with small changes such as weekly “Meatless Mondays”. Try some of our plant-forward recipes such as baked tostadas, creamy coconut lentil curry, or one pan Mexican quinoa skillet. You can also try replacing half the meat in tacos with mushrooms, beans, or lentils. Mushrooms add an umami (savory) flavor that is similar to meat.
Is Being Vegan Sustainable?
Compared to meat-containing diets, vegan diets create less environmental stress in terms of land, water, resources, and greenhouse gas emissions. (4)
Healthy vegan diets are rich in beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and do not include animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. This way of eating can reduce risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and may increase life expectancy. (1)
So should we just forget meat and all become vegan?
Maybe not. There could be a few potential issues with following a vegan diet.
If the diet is high in ultra-processed foods or transported long distances, this could have negative environmental impacts. If greenhouses are used to grow produce or if out-of-season fruits and vegetables are transported long distances, then energy use increases. (2)
There are also some plant foods that may use more water for production than animal products. Therefore, the benefits of a vegan diet depend on specific and individual dietary choices. (1)
A vegan diet can also be difficult to sustain without some guidance from a nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian. Without careful planning, it is possible to become deficient in nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, and iron, which are typically found in high amounts from animal sources. (2)
This diet also has the potential to be higher in sugar, with increased consumption of processed food substitutes that are traditionally animal based. (8) For individuals with soy or wheat allergies, balanced nutrition could be difficult as well, since these are two important sources of plant-based protein.
All said, adopting a plant-forward diet that still includes meat and meat products but emphasizes plants is likely more sustainable and realistic than adopting a strictly vegan diet, and it still supports environmental and physical health.
Good for the environment and good for YOU!
2. Reduce Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are typically high in fat, sugar, and various additives. Examples include sugar-sweetened beverages, chips, pre-made desserts, and processed meats. Production, transportation, and consumption of these foods contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. (9) Ultra-processed foods are also bad for your health – more reason to cut back!
3. Be Picky with Seafood
Existing fishery laws outline sustainability standards that aim to protect ocean habitats, prevent overfishing, reduce bycatch, and respect natural habitats.
Aquaculture (fish farming) is one way that suppliers can keep up with increasing seafood demand without overfishing the oceans. (10) The Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector shows various seafoods’ “eco-ratings”, mercury levels, and omega-3 contents. These indicators can help you determine the healthfulness and environmental sustainability of specific fish and seafood options.
4. Buy Local
Choosing locally-grown food can potentially reduce energy usage, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and use fewer resources than typically expended to transport foods long distances. However, the benefits may be negated if you have to drive a long distance to buy local products, so shop close to home if possible! (2)
Tips for eating more locally grown foods:
- Look for signs in grocery stores that say “local”.
- Visit nearby farmers markets.
- If you live near a farm that offers a CSA (community supported agriculture) program, consider signing up!
- If you enjoy gardening and have the space, consider growing your own fruits and vegetables. This is great for mental and physical health, connecting you with nature and increasing your natural movement. Plus, it’s as local as it gets!
5. Buy In-Season
Buying produce in season has many benefits!
Seasonal produce usually travels shorter distances to grocery stores, and therefore uses less fuel and creates less pollution than out-of-season produce.
Conversely, out-of-season produce may require special high-energy heating and lighting to grow in unnatural conditions. In addition to having a lower environmental impact, in-season produce is often tastier and more affordable too! (11)
Should you buy organic produce?
Organic farming practices aim to decrease negative environmental impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring soil health, reducing groundwater pollution, increasing biodiversity, and improving crop disease resistance. (13)
Whether or not organic is better for the environment depends on which aspect of environmental sustainability is being evaluated (land, water, energy, emissions) and what is being grown. For example, conventionally-grown foods are more environmentally sustainable in terms of land use, whereas organically-grown fruits are better for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. (12)
At To Taste, we would rather you consume more fruits and vegetables than worry about if they’re organic. However, the final choice is up to you, your budget, and your taste preferences.
What about GMOs? Are those sustainable?
Genetically engineered crops have many potential benefits in building a sustainable food system. Not only can yields be increased to help feed our growing population, but these crops can also help reduce needs for herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. This could potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions. (14)
6. Buy in Bulk
By shopping the bulk section of a grocery store, you can reduce excessive packaging waste and save the energy and resources used to make that packaging.
To further your impact, purchase washable, reusable bags that you can use when shopping in the produce and bulk sections.
7. Reduce Food Waste
Did you know that ~⅓ of the food produced in the world goes to waste??
Food production uses large amounts of energy, water, fertilizer, land, and fuel, and when that food is wasted, it goes to the landfill, contributing to land, water, and air pollution. (15) That’s a lot of resources to use, just to end in a landfill!
Tips for reducing food waste at home:
- Make a plan for weekly meals and use this to write your grocery list.
- Keep track of the date you make meals on your phone or a notepad
- The FoodKeeper App can tell you how long leftovers and food items will last which can help you prioritize which items to eat first.
- Use sauces, vinegars, or spices to turn leftovers into a new and flavorful dish.
- Use leftover vegetables in a stir-fry, casserole, salad, or soup.
- Turn stale bread into French toast, croutons, or breadcrumbs.
- Freeze leftover food before it spoils. This is also great for quick meals on busy days!
- Use every part of the vegetable. For example, carrot and celery trimmings can be saved to make homemade vegetable stock, and broccoli stems can be shredded to make broccoli “rice”.
- Support companies like Imperfect Foods that sell grocery items at reduced prices due to cosmetic or packaging imperfections. The imperfections are normally minor and do not impact the quality or taste of the food. Companies like this can help you reduce food waste and save money – double win!
8. Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose
Reducing kitchen waste can also lower your environmental impact.
Kitchen Tips to Reduce, Reuse, and Repurpose:
- Pack silverware instead of disposable plasticware in your lunch.
- Limit use of paper plates, napkins, and other single–use items.
- Use washable cloth towels instead of paper towels.
- Drink from a reusable water bottle.
- Use silicone baking mats instead of parchment paper or foil.
- Purchase reusable zip-top bags instead of plastic bags.
- Wrap leftovers in silicone stretch lids instead of plastic wrap.
- Store leftovers in glass or plastic containers from pasta sauce, peanut butter, etc.
9. Make Your Own Food
Another easy way to reduce packaging waste is to make your own food! Making your own food can also save you money since you are not paying for production and packaging.
Granola is a commonly packaged product that’s easy to make at home. Try out our granola base recipe that can be modified to create flavorful combinations such as maple pecan and blueberry vanilla. Homemade hummus is another great option.
It’s not always possible to eat every last bit of food, such as the shell of a spaghetti squash or the peel of an orange. Plus, no one is perfect all the time. Leftovers get forgotten, neglected produce shrivels and wilts, or you eat out more than planned that week, leaving the food in your fridge to lose quality and appeal.
Composting is an easy solution to this problem, keeping food out of landfills and undesirable foods out of your kitchen. Composting turns organic waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer which can be used to help grow more nutritious foods – what a wonderful life cycle! (16)
Purchase a small, odor-blocking composting bucket for an easy way to keep your kitchen scraps contained.
Now that you have some ideas on how to eat more sustainably, turn those ideas into action! What small changes can you make for the health of your body and planet? We’d love to hear!
To YOUR Taste!
Nikki, Dietetic Intern