Sustainable Food Choices Made Easy!
A sustainable diet shouldn’t just have a lower carbon footprint. It should also be easy to maintain. This means it should allow us to feel full and satisfied, be nutritious, and be affordable. I do this by eating a lot less meat and replacing it with alternative protein sources like beans and lentils. This is an easy decision for me and something my body appreciates. Before moving in with my husband I was mostly vegetarian and have even been vegan for awhile. I love tofu, buffalo cauliflower “wings,” and often naturally choose the vegetarian option at a restaurant.
Don’t worry! I am not here to tell you we should all be vegan!
I also won’t try to convince you to give up meat completely or to even give your diet a major overhaul. The good news is little decisions can have major impacts on our individual carbon footprints! The purpose of this post is to give us the knowledge and tools to make more informed food choices everyday.
I am in no way a medical professional. Please consult your doctor before making any major dietary changes. Many people have extenuating circumstances that dictate what foods are best for their body and I am not here to tell you how to eat or what to eat. I fully support doing what is best for your body. We all have to make the choices that are best for ourselves. I am merely here to offer you the information I found while researching sustainable food choices, and how to make those choices if you so choose.
That being said…
I do think that there is room within any diet to make more sustainable food choices. In a study published by Arizona State University, scientists evaluated the global warming potential (GWP) for the most common protein sources we eat. GWP takes into account the growing/raising, harvesting, transporting, cooking, eating, and expelling of the protein in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
They evaluated over 30 protein sources per 100 grams of food and found that meat and dairy had the highest GWP. Beef, the highest, had almost double the GWP of any other protein source. Nuts and legumes were the most efficient protein sources, and had significantly lower GWP than meat sources (Berardy et al., 2019)
The list below summarizes some of their findings in order from highest GWP to lowest. I focused on the most common protein sources in an American household. A higher GWP means that the protein source has a larger carbon footprint.
What can we do?
So now that we know what foods contribute the most to Global warming let’s talk about what we can do to help. The simplest solution is to reduce the amount of meat we eat. But, it is also important that we don’t just replace meat with things like white rice, pasta, or bread since the protein content in these is so low we’d have to eat too much of it and actually increase our carbon footprint. For example: we would have to eat so much rice to replace the protein content of 1 chicken breast that the GWP for the large amount of rice is much higher than that of a single chicken breast. Instead use alternate sources of protein like nuts, beans, etc.
The Mediterranean Diet
Scientists at the University of California have put together a video, linked below, on making sustainable food choices. It features conservation scientist Dr. M. Sanjayan, and is less than 6 minutes long. Dr. Sanjayan does a great job explaining how to make more sustainable food choices and the science behind it.
Basically the video says that just by switching to a Mediterranean diet or making healthier choices for our bodies we can make huge impacts on our individual carbon footprints.
One of the most surprising points they make is that the Mediterranean diet is almost as low impact as a vegan or vegetarian diet. If everyone stuck to a Mediterranean diet it could reduce global warming pollution by 15% and just by working towards that goal its “equivalent to taking about a billion cars off of the streets in terms of vehicle emissions” (Vox, 2017, 4:12).
The Mediterranean diet focuses on heart healthy fats like olive oil and utilizing alternate sources of protein like nuts and legumes without eliminating meat. Fish and chicken are eaten a few times a week. While beef is limited to once or twice a month. It also encourages a small glass of red wine each night, which automatically means I’m on board!
Even if you aren’t ready to commit to a Mediterranean, vegetarian, or vegan lifestyle I’ve come up with a list of 5 tips to help us easily make more sustainable choices.
5 Tips to More Sustainable Food choices
1. Limit red meat to once or twice a month.
We have replaced ground beef with ground chicken or turkey. If I’m craving a burger I wait until I go to a restaurant, and we only eat steak on special occasions or sometimes when we go out to eat.
2. Reduce overall meat consumption by serving smaller portions of meat (4 oz).
We try to stretch the meat we eat by sharing a chicken breast or using a little less meat than a dish actually calls for. If we eat something that calls for 4 chicken breasts we butterfly 2 and use that instead.
3. Eat more plant based meals.
We include vegetables and fruits at every meal and try to fill at least ⅓ of our plate with veggies. Our breakfast is usually meatless, and we plan at least 2-3 meatless dinners each week.
4. Buy in season and local when possible.
These options have a smaller carbon footprint since they didn’t travel as far. This can be more expensive though.
5. Think thrifty!
Using less meat can be a cheaper alternative if replaced with an alternate protein source such as beans or lentils. This also harks back to stretching the meat you do use. If I make a pot of red beans I only add half a ham steak, and I don’t put any meat in black beans or lentils. They have enough flavor as is.
PIN, Screen shot, or Print out one of these quick guides for your phone, fridge, or wallet! I use mine in restaurants and the grocery store!
For more information on the Mediterranean Diet check out these resources:
Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/a-practical-guide-to-the-mediterranean-diet-2019032116194
Berardy, A.; Johnston, C.S.; Plukis, A.; Vizcaino, M.; Wharton, C. Integrating Protein Quality and Quantity with Environmental Impacts in Life Cycle Assessment. Sustainability 2019, 11, 2747. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11102747
Dernini, S., & Berry, E. M. (2015). Mediterranean Diet: From a Healthy Diet to a Sustainable Dietary Pattern. Frontiers in nutrition, 2, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2015.00015
Marlène Perignon, Florent Vieux, Louis-Georges Soler, Gabriel Masset, Nicole Darmon, Improving diet sustainability through evolution of food choices: review of epidemiological studies on the environmental impact of diets, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2017, Pages 2–17, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuw043
Vox. (December 12, 2017.) The diet that helps fight climate change [Videol]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUnJQWO4YJY&feature=youtu.be