How to Eat Environmentally Friendly and Stop Global Warming

Devastating wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather have escalated concerns about climate change. Can what we eat make a difference? You bet.

Increasingly, food-related solutions to climate change are on the table. After all, a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from food. That’s the impact of what it takes to grow, make, package and transport the food on your plate.

Every year, the world adds 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — trapping heat and driving up global temperatures. The only way to avoid an impending climate disaster is to stop adding greenhouse gases by 2050, says Bill Gates, who outlines his vision in a new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.” Gates launched Breakthrough Energy to support innovations that help lead the world to net-zero emissions.

To cut greenhouses gases by 2050, Gates says we need to transform virtually every major sector of the economy — agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation and construction.

[SEE: Plant-Based Diet Ideas.]

Climate-Smart Eating

There are things we can all do at our own dinner tables that could help us get to net zero growth in greenhouse gases. Fortunately, in many cases, what’s good for personal health, is also good for planetary health.

Here are five specific ways you can reduce the carbon footprint of what you eat:

— Eat more plants.

— Buy more beans.

— Cut food waste.

— Choose local and seasonal produce.

— Look for carbon labeling.

Eat More Plants

Reducing meat and increasing plant-based foods is likely to make the biggest impact. Yet, that does not mean you need to become a vegetarian overnight. In a global United Nations climate study, almost two-thirds of over 1.2 million people surveyed said they view climate change as a global emergency. Yet, shifting to a plant-based diet was the least favored solution to climate change. People would rather change other aspects of their lifestyle than cut out meat.

In reality, studies suggest you don’t need to cut out meat completely. A review of the environmental impacts of different diets published in the journal Sustainability found that it’s possible to achieve the same planetary benefits of a vegan diet by reducing — not eliminating — meat and dairy. In fact, the authors say vegan diets may not always have a lower climate footprint if animal products are replaced by highly processed meat and dairy substitutes.

So don’t think you need to abandon beef and lamb, the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Just balance red meat meals with poultry, sustainable seafood and plant-based proteins. Even once a week, say on Meatless Monday, explore different meat-free options including beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

[READ: Best Diets for the Environment.]

Buy More Beans

A steak results in more than 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions compared to a portion of beans. While you don’t need to give up that steak entirely, consider swapping beans for beef once a week. A study published in Climate Change found that if every American made that one simple change once a week for year it would keep 75 million metric tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. The researchers suggest this single change of substituting beans for beef once a week could help achieve up to 74% of the reductions needed to meet the greenhouse gas targets established by the U.S.

Use black beans for your burger instead of beef once a week. Swap beans for meat in chili, tacos, burritos and enchiladas. Make falafel instead of meatballs. Simmer a stew with lentils instead of sirloin.

Cut Food Waste

Globally, about one-third of food is lost or wasted. Food that you waste ends up in landfills, where it breaks down and forms the greenhouse gas methane. Throwing out food also represents a waste of the energy and water to produce that food. Focusing on curtailing food waste in your own kitchen will help the country get closer to its net zero goal.

Plan before you go shopping, and buy only what you need. Be sure to use the food you already have and get creative with leftovers.

Jackie Newgent, a plant-forward culinary nutritionist, cooking coach and author of “Big Green Cookbook,” suggests reframing how you think of leftovers. “Try using the term ‘vintage cuisine’ for today’s creations from yesterday’s meal extras. You may enjoy them more!”

Newgent also suggests using all edible produce parts — skins, seeds, leafy tops and all. “Not only is this helpful for preventing food waste, it can save money and offer bonus deliciousness and culinary intrigue to your meals. I call this ‘earth-style’ cooking. Make sure to scrub skins and outer peels well before use.”

Cooking and freezing food — especially produce — before it goes bad is a great way to avoid having to toss it. Newgent recommends keeping a stash of edible vegetable scraps left from food prep in a container in your fridge. Every few days, make something with these odds and ends. That can be as simple as sauteing these little veggie pieces and blending into hummus or tossing with pasta, she says.

Newgent encourages the use of misshapen, “ugly” or otherwise misfit produce. “It might look funny, but it’s still 100% good for you,” she says. Overly ripe fruits and vegetables may also not look pretty, but that doesn’t mean they can’t taste delicious in recipes. Use your wilting, browning or imperfect produce to make smoothies, quick breads, jams, sauces or soup stocks. Explore having ugly produce shipped directly to your door with Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market.

[See: Try These Vegan Potluck Ideas.]

Choose Local and Seasonal Produce

Even though what you eat matters a lot more than where it comes from — transportation accounts for only 6% of food’s total climate footprint — it still helps to support local agriculture.

“The United States is a big, big place, so aim to mostly use produce that’s in-season in your own local area — or, better yet, your own garden — for the greenest fruit and vegetable experience,” Newgent says. “The less distance that produce needs to travel, generally means the less greenhouse gasses are required to get that produce to your table.”

If a fruit or vegetable is available at your local farmers’ market — or amply available at your supermarket, that’s a good sign of seasonality, Newgent says. You can also visit to find out what’s in season near you. As a bonus, when produce is at its seasonal peak, it is also at its most nutrient-rich, colorful, flavorful best. It’s usually cheapest then too.

Look for Carbon Labeling

Maybe you don’t think about climate when shopping for food. That will likely change in 2021 when carbon labeling gains traction. Think of carbon labeling as the new nutrition labeling. Now instead of just checking for calories, you can look for a food’s climate footprint.

Two brands that have been out front on carbon labeling are Oatly, the Swedish oat drink company, and Quorn, a line of meat substitutes that originated in the U.K. Oatly worked with Carbon Cloud to certify its climate labeling, while Quorn collaborated with Carbon Trust to verify its “farm to shop” carbon footprint data.

The trend is even bigger in the restaurant industry. The New York-based salad chain Just Salad was first to introduce carbon labeling — described as a “nutrition label for the planet.” Every item on Just Salad’s menu and app is accompanied by an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions — measured as kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO?e). The chain also introduced a Climatarian Menu, which features items with the lowest carbon footprint.

Similarly, Panera worked with the World Resources Institute to create Low Carbon Cool Food Meals that includes lower carbon menu items that fall below an established per-meal threshold. You can also check the footprint of your burrito at Chipotle. The chain introduced Real Foodprint that allows you to calculate how the ingredients in your burrito stack up against conventional counterparts on several factors, including emissions (measured in grams), gallons of water saved, organic land supported and antibiotics avoided.

Chipotle worked with HowGood for their sustainability calculations. And that’s where it can get a bit confusing. Climate labels are not consistent: Companies are using different measurements, third-party validators and include different data points. For instance, some count transportation, while others do not. The entire lexicon is likely new to most people.

Even so, the eco-labels are one way to reinforce the link between food and climate. And they might help inspire the public to make more climate-friendly choices. One study in Belgium found that environment-related labels helped to improve the eco-friendliness of people’s diets by about 5% compared to other labels.

Food and Climate Change

Sarah Bridle, a professor at the University of Manchester in the U.K., meticulously details the carbon footprint of foods in her new book “Food and Climate Change – Without the Hot Air,” which is available free as a downloadable e-book. In this well-documented book, Bridle breaks down the climate cost of individual foods and drinks, comparing the emissions associated with popular options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks to help people make more sustainable choices.

She also heads up a project called Take a Bite Out of Climate Change to educate the public about food and climate change. The website includes many free tools, including a Climate Calculator so you can add up the climate impact of the food you eat.

Europe seems to be ahead of the U.S. on the food-climate connection. Food products are marketed as climate positive, and apps like Giki can help you track the carbon footprint when grocery shopping. There’s even a climate store where food prices are based on carbon emissions.

Even though our U.S. Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025 don’t include sustainability in the new nutrition recommendations, expect to see more food companies make net zero commitments and more carbon labeling on package labels and menus.

To learn more about eating sustainably and shrinking your own personal foodprint, visit

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