By Mary Purdy, MS, RDN & Jenna Lee, MS, RDN
WHAT IS AN ECO-FRIENDLY DIET?
Eco-friendly diets are born from the idea that the health of each person is connected to the health of the environment. Eating with the environment in mind may help to support the transition to a more sustainable food system and support human health. According to one definition, “A sustainable and resilient food system conserves and renews natural resources, advances social justice and animal welfare, builds community wealth, and fulfills the food and nutrition needs of all eaters now and in the future.” 1 But this is just one definition! Eco-friendly eating will look a little different for everybody. Experiment to find out what works best for you and your unique lifestyle.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Many folks think that energy use and transportation are the biggest contributors to environmental problems, when in fact our food system, and specifically agriculture, has an equally significant impact.2 Food production alone is responsible for over one-quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial farming practices have also done a number on our soil, depleting rich organic matter and forcing farmers to rely on synthetic fertilizers that are harmful to the environment.4 Lucky for us, foods that tend to have a lower environmental impact – think fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains also happen to also typically be more supportive to our health. On the flip side, consuming high amounts of foods like poor quality red meat are associated with poor health outcomes and can have negative ecological effects.3 This means a shift towards healthier diets can benefit both people and planet. We do have some power to reduce our impact on the environment through the food choices that we make every day. Keep reading to find out how you can eat to preserve the planet and give your ticker a little boost at the same time!
SIX TIPS FOR ECO-FRIENDLY EATING
#1: PUMP UP THE PLANTS
In general, plant-based foods are produced in a way that is more sustainable than animal-based foods. In our current industrialized system of animal agriculture, huge areas of land are deforested, reducing the potential to clear carbon from the atmosphere, in order to provide space for livestock, who in turn release massive amounts of methane into the environment in the form of, yes, burps and gas. In fact, animal agriculture is responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the average diet here in the US.4 Scientists propose that if we could replace half of the animal-based foods we eat with plant-based foods, we could reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions by 35% – that’s over one-third of our total emissions!5 Concerned about protein? You can get sufficient amounts by eating a variety of plant-based foods like beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. While protein needs do vary from person to person, most adults tend to eat almost twice the recommended amount each day!4 Try a lentil soup this week or put hummus on that sammy instead of roast beef!
Do you need to go vegan? Actually, no you don’t! However, the cumulative effect of large portions of the population cutting back on the amount of animal-based food eaten could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. After all, a serving of beef produces 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a serving of vegetables.7 If you eat meat every day, perhaps shoot for every other day. Or try combining meat and bean dishes. Why not toss some extra black beans into dad’s famous chili? If vegetarian dining once a week feels more like your jam, check out the Meatless Mondays Campaign.
#2: CHOOSE ORGANIC OR PESTICIDE-FREE WHEN AVAILABLE
The chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in industrial agriculture not only pollute the soil and water, they also require huge amounts of energy to produce. Organic and “regenerative” farming use techniques that preserve the health of the soil and enrich it with nutrients.8 It’s important to remember that some farmers use regenerative practices but are not USDA-Certified Organic, oftentimes because getting certified is so expensive. Additionally, not every farm that is “certified organic” uses regenerative techniques! Shopping at the farmers markets is a great way to connect with local producers who can tell you all about their specific farming methods. You can use this tool to help you find a farmers market in your neighborhood! Shopping for local produce also reduces carbon emissions that result from transporting foods from far away places when they’re actually grown right in your backyard!
#3: DITCH THE PACKAGING
The garbage created by food packaging is a major problem. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food packaging makes up an astonishing 45% of the contents of landfills.9 Not only does this plastic and paper impact the environment and in turn, our climate, but many packaged foods are also highly processed and tend to be less supportive to our health. You can avoid individually wrapped foods or single-use plastic items and replace them with minimally processed, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, good for both ourselves and the environment.3 Love the crispy crunch of a cracker or chip? Carrots, celery or jicama can also offer you that experience, but without being housed in a box or bag that usually gets tossed. Buying in bulk can also help reduce waste.
#4: WATCH OUT FOR WASTE
We affect our environment not only by how we produce food, but also in how we get rid of it. We waste up to 40% of food produced in the US! All that wasted food generates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount comparable to the emissions from all the cars on the road.10 Plus, there are all the resources (energy, water etc.) that went into creating that food that never found its way into your belly! However, a little bit of planning can go a long way for reducing food waste. Sticking to your shopping list is helpful. So is planning out meals for the week and actually eating them before they become unrecognizable in your fridge. Many foods can also be saved from the trash by canning, freezing, preserving or fermenting them. A good soup is also an awesome place for that droopy carrot and shriveling potato. And don’t forget, composting (if available in your neck of the woods), can be a great way to repurpose the food for soil enrichment. Get inspired with this guide! That mush in your compost bucket might just help you grow green beans in your garden.
#5: GO FOR THE TAP (if and when it’s safe!)
Americans spend almost $16 billion per year on bottled water.11 While this may be necessary under certain circumstances, all those bottles have to go somewhere, and unfortunately, it’s usually not to the recycling bin. 86% of all plastic water bottles end up in landfills,12 where they leech harmful chemicals into the ground and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.18 Facilities that manufacture plastics like those used to make single-use water bottles are also major emitters of greenhouse gasses. In fact, the plastic industry emits about as much carbon dioxide into the environment each year as 45 million cars.19
Bottled water is also roughly 3,000 times more expensive than tap water.12 Choosing tap water over bottled water will reduce your impact on the environment and save you some serious cash. Dig out that reusable water bottle and hit the tap!
#6: EAT ANIMALS MINDFULLY (IF YOU EAT THEM)
If you can’t see yourself significantly cutting back on meat, you can strongly advocate for humane and environmentally friendly animal agriculture and make informed decisions when you choose animal-based foods. When practiced in a humane and environmentally conscious way, animal agriculture can play an important and positive role in our food system. Many people around the world rely on livestock as a source of income and a crucial source of nutrients. Raising livestock responsibly can also improve the health of the soil.6 (Marvelous manure at play here!) Oftentimes, sustainably produced animal-foods may be more expensive than conventionally raised, but for some, money saved by eating more plant foods can be put towards purchasing high quality, sustainably produced animal foods which may also benefit your health.
BEEF & DAIRY
Not all cows are the same, so make sure to ask producers how their cattle are raised and what they’re fed. While the majority of animals raised for food are kept in unhumane feeding lots known as CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), some pasture-raised animals live in unconfined spaces as a symbiotic part of farms and are allowed to engage in natural behaviors and consume their natural diet of grass and dried forages.13 Besides providing a better life for the animals, their manure fertilizes the earth and enriches it with nutrients, creating healthy soil with lush grass that prevents erosion. Not only that, but milk produced by pastured cows is actually more nutritious than conventionally produced milk, with higher amounts of vitamin A and heart-healthy omega-3 fats.14 Check out this scorecard for help choosing high quality dairy near you! No matter what, continuing to reduce meat and dairy consumption overall has benefits to both human health and the environment not to mention the animals themselves!
Sadly, about one-third of fish populations are overfished.15 However, some sustainable options are out there! Look for “eco-certified” seafood labels, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s “farmed responsibly” certification, and ask grocery store staff if they sell any sustainably raised seafood. Most shellfish farms are known to be less harmful to the environment. Why not branch out and try some mussels, clams or oysters? They make a great replacement for meat in a marinara sauce. Small fish such as mackerel, herring and sardines also have a much lower impact than large predatory fish like salmon and tuna because they are much more plentiful and reproduce very quickly.16 Next time you think about making that tuna sammy, make it with sardines instead! Wild Planet is a sustainable brand. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program also publishes a comprehensive guide that can help you make informed choices when buying seafood.
Raising hens in small groups on pasture rather than confined in factory farms, improves both the life of the animals, the health of the soil and produces more nutritious eggs. In fact, pastured eggs have twice as much vitamin E and omega-3 fats as conventional eggs! 17 Unfortunately, egg labels can be confusing and there is no specific label certifying that hens were pasture raised. A little research can help you find a responsible egg producer in your area – you can use this scorecard to help! If you do have access to a farmer’s market, touch base with the farmer to learn a bit more about these birds providing your breakfast. Great way to connect with your food.
READY TO BE AN ECO-EATER?
There’s no denying that our current food system is causing harm to the environment and contributing to the climate crisis, but we each have the power to change this every time we have something to eat. Changing how and what we eat can change the world. What’s one change you’ll make today? Make your commitment in the comments below!