10 Tips for Starting a More Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Diet

The climate is changing and how we eat is contributing.

Climate change has become a hot topic lately, as the severity and frequency of major storms, droughts and other natural disasters has spiked in many locations around the globe. While it might seem like one person can’t make a difference in the face of these forces, how and what you choose to eat can have an impact, says Elisa G. Mora, a registered dietitian and supervisor of disease management with CalOptima, a county-organized health system in Orange County, California. “Just as different foods can have differing impacts on human health, they also have differing impacts on the environment.”

Janette Wong, a registered dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, agrees, noting that “what we choose to buy and eat can impact the planet immensely.”

It’s a local and global issue.

Mora notes that America isn’t the only nation that’s struggling with planetary and human health when it comes to diet. “As nations have urbanized and citizen incomes have increased worldwide, traditional diets, which are typically higher in quality plant-based foods, have transitioned to a Western-style dietary pattern,” she says. This transition is “characterized by high consumption of calories, highly processed foods including refined carbohydrates, added sugars, sodium and unhealthy fats, and high amounts of animal products. Along with the potentially negative human health impacts associated with this nutrition transition, this dietary pattern is ultimately unsustainable” for the planet because of how these foods are produced and delivered.

Shifting to a planetary health diet

Shifting towards a “planetary health diet” can nurture both people and planet. The planetary health diet was developed in 2019 by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which used scientific targets for healthy and sustainable food systems to make targeted recommendations for improved human and planetary health.

The diet defines daily consumption ranges for each food group and is “characterized by a variety of high-quality, plant-based foods and low amounts of animal-based foods, refined grains, added sugars and unhealthy fats, such as trans and saturated fats,” Mora explains. “This way of eating is flexible enough to accommodate local and individual situations, traditions and dietary preferences.” (The Mediterranean diet is also considered a sustainable diet.)

The following 10 changes can help move your diet toward a planetary health diet that’s healthier for you and the environment.

1. Eat more plants.

“A plant-based diet is always going to have less of an impact on the environment as a whole,” says Laura Bishop-Simo, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

“Reducing your meat intake is one of the best ways to lower your carbon footprint,” Mora says. “In a study conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, of 16,800 Americans, diets that released the most greenhouse gasses were highest in meat from beef, veal, pork and other ruminants. In fact, because cheese takes so much milk to produce, it’s associated with greater greenhouse gas emissions than animal products like pork, eggs and chicken.”

The diets that were found to be lowest in greenhouse gas emissions also featured the least amount of meat products.

However, Bishop-Simo notes that “not all plant-based foods are the same.” For example, palm oil is “definitely an ingredient to look out for in your foods as palm oil and palm oil products are not always sustainably grown or harvested. Many palm farming practices decimate entire forests and animal habitats,” with the sun bear and orangutan being at significant risk when unsustainable palm oil harvesting or farming techniques are employed because these animals often make their homes in places where palm farming occurs.

Wong recommends choosing more plant-based foods and including “more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes (beans, peas, lentils) in your meals — make them the center of the recipes, the main dish.”

Fresh, plant-based produce is also easier on the planet when it comes to waste. “Inedible parts of our fruits and vegetables are biodegradable, and they serve as compostable materials. Composting is beneficial for our soil,” Wong says. Composting enriches the soil by encouraging the productions of beneficial bacteria and fungi, it reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers carbon emissions.

Shifting to a more plant-based approach to food could help feed the hungry, too, Mora notes. “The World Resources Institute estimates that such changes to dietary patterns could allow feeding of up to 30% more people with the same agricultural land and cropping patterns.”

2. Ditch animal products.

“High demand for livestock and its derivatives — meat, cow’s milk and eggs — can quickly deplete our planet’s natural resources and increase pollution,” Wong explains. That’s because “livestock farming requires large amounts of land and water, leading to deforestation and water pollution through discharge of wastes. According to the Sustainable Agriculture Network, livestock production emits about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.” Mora adds that “both dairy and red meat, especially beef, stand out for their disproportionate impact contributing to global warming.”

Beyond emissions, deforestation and pollution, livestock-centered agricultural development can also contribute to species extinction and freshwater depletion and consumption, Mora notes.

Therefore, eating for the planet means eating less food derived from animals such as red meat and deli meat. “Buying and eating less of these can change the food system, allowing it to engage in more sustainable practices, which in turn will produce less greenhouse gas emissions,” Wong explains.

But before you despair ever eating meat again, Mora adds that “you don’t need to cut animal protein from your diet completely.” Instead, “try limiting your meat dishes to one meal per day, going meat-free one day per week or testing out vegetarian or vegan options.”

If you’re going to include meat, she recommends selecting “meat that has been sustainably produced — which generally means certifiably pasture-raised.” While meat raised this way can be more expensive, “it’s also likely to be more delicious. Remember, a little meat can go a long way. For example, buy a less expensive cut and use a small amount to flavor a vegetable or bean-based soup.”

3. Choose whole foods.

“Choosing foods that need less processing are going to have the least amount of impact on the environment,” Bishop-Simo says.

The more processed a food is, the more emissions are generated in its production. Highly processed foods also tend to have more packaging and may be shipped longer distances, all of which can contribute to pollution and climate-altering emissions.

4. Buy in bulk.

Bulk foods are often sold without packaging or with reusable containers, which produces less garbage and less landfill, which is good for the environment. In addition to involving less packaging, buying in bulk can also be a more economical option. “More product for a lesser price will allow you to save money when choosing fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy oils,” Wong says.

5. Eat locally and seasonally.

To eat more healthfully, sustainably and economically, Wong recommends eating locally and with the seasons. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are more economical when they’re in season, not to mention, they’re fresher. By buying in season, you’re probably getting your produce locally, which means you’re also reducing your carbon footprint.”

Mora agrees that eating in tune with the seasons is good for you and the planet. “Blueberries don’t grow in Montana during January, yet you can still buy them fresh at this time. This means they’re likely coming from far, far away which drives the cost up,” as well as the greenhouse gasses released to ship them to the store. Instead, focus on foods that are available in season where you live. Keep in mind, the largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation, more than agriculture itself, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Eating locally and driving less is good for the environment.

You can keep up with what’s in season via grocery store circulars or their website, or better yet, visit the local farmer’s market. “Shopping locally is a fun way to support your community. It keeps your dollars in the community where you live and can help foster a healthy environment of diversity,” while also reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship the food to market, Mora says.

6. Drink locally.

In addition to eating locally, it’s wise to drink locally too. “Liquids can be heavy items to ship around the country and lots of fossil fuel is needed to transport them,” Mora notes. “Instead of purchasing bottled beverages, use a refillable bottle and fill it with water from the tap or filter.”

7. Choose sustainably farmed or caught seafood.

If you’re going to include seafood in your diet, Wong recommends purchasing fish that was caught or farmed through sustainable practices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website can help you make more sustainable selections at the seafood counter.

8. Grow your own.

If you have an outdoor area, you may be able to grow some of your own produce. “It could be herbs in a pot, tomatoes on a patio or a small plot in your yard,” Mora says. Not only do those plants absorb some carbon dioxide from the local environment, they may produce some of the most delicious food you’ll ever have — made even tastier by the fact that you grew it yourself. “Not much gives you a greater appreciation for what it takes to create food than to grow your own.”

Going through the process of growing your own fruits and veggies can help you gain an understanding of the myriad factors involved in “making plants thrive, the attention needed to successfully grow food and how precarious the process can be,” she adds. “Those insights may influence how you buy, use and dispose of food.”

9. Ask for sustainable options.

Don’t be afraid to speak up at the grocery store and in the restaurants you frequent, as doing so can effect change. “There’s no better way to affect the direction of our food system and what grocers, restaurateurs and food companies produce and sell than to influence their bottom line,” Mora says. “Ask your food providers to support local farmers, local producers and sustainable agriculture and show your support through your buying decisions.”

She also recommends working on only purchasing foods that you know you’ll consume prior to their expiration date to decrease your waste. This means being more diligent in meal planning and shopping so you don’t overbuy. The upside to planning is that you’ll likely save money and you can plan healthier meals, too. Mora recommends asking your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian who can help you plan your meals to transition to a better diet for both your individual health needs and the overall well-being of the planet.

10. Start small.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by eating with the planet in mind, Bishop-Simo recommends starting small. “If you’re a meat-and-potatoes person, making a major shift in your eating habits and practices can be a recipe for disaster.” Instead, “start with meatless Mondays, then go from there. Or, try making half your plate plant-based instead.”

She also recommends working on only purchasing foods that you know you’ll consume prior to their expiration date to decrease your waste. This means being more diligent in meal planning and shopping so you don’t overbuy. The upside to planning is that you’ll likely save money and you can plan healthier meals, too. Mora recommends asking your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian who can help you plan your meals to transition to a better diet for both your individual health needs and the overall well-being of the planet.

To recap, these are 10 ways to make your diet more sustainable and eco-friendly:

— Eat more plants.

— Ditch animal products.

— Choose whole foods.

— Buy in bulk.

— Eat locally and seasonally.

— Drink locally.

— Choose sustainably farmed or caught seafood.

— Grow your own.

— Ask for sustainable options.

— Start small.

More from U.S. News

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10 Tips for Starting a More Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/30/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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