You can get a more sustainable diet by swapping one item at a time

key takeaways

  • Switching to a greener alternative in your overall diet can help reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Among other common foods, beef has the greatest impact on the environment.
  • Plant-based alternatives aren’t always sustainable. For example, asparagus and almonds require a lot of water.

You don’t always have to switch to a plant-based diet to eat more sustainably. Swapping just one food item — especially beef products — can have a major impact on your carbon footprint, a new study shows.

Americans who ate beef could reduce their diet’s carbon footprint by as much as 48 percent by simply replacing one serving a day with a more environmentally friendly alternative, the researchers wrote.

The study was published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Follow a large-scale project by researchers to determine the carbon footprint of the American diet.

In a survey of nearly 17,000 Americans, about 20 percent said they ate at least one serving of beef a day. Among other foods, beef alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the environmental impact, according to the study’s lead author, Diego Rose, PhD, professor of nutrition and food safety at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

“If there was a way to reduce high carbon footprint intake to the median, we could actually save significantly on the overall carbon footprint of the American diet,” Ross told VigorTip.

The researchers ranked the foods based on their levels of greenhouse gas emissions and their water scarcity footprint (a measure of irrigation water compared to regional water scarcity levels). They found that poultry and pork are more “planet friendly” than beef, because raising cattle produces 8 to 10 times more greenhouse gases than poultry production.

According to the World Resources Institute, beef uses more land and fresh water and produces more emissions per unit of protein than any other common food.

When cows digest their food, they release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Chickens may also release small amounts of methane, but on a different scale. Some cattle farmers are creating high-fiber diets for their cows to reduce methane emissions, while others are using regenerative farming practices to reduce the impact of beef production on the land.

Despite these efforts, a sustainable swap remains essential, Ross said.

“Beef consumption in this country is so high that we can’t sustainably produce enough beef to meet that consumption level. So somewhere, we’re going to need to cut it,” he said.

It also helps to find alternatives to vegetables that require a lot of water or are grown in water-scarce areas. For example, almonds and asparagus are grown primarily in California, which often experiences droughts exacerbated by climate change. The researchers found that replacing asparagus with peas reduced the footprint by about 48 percent, while replacing almonds with peanuts reduced the footprint by more than 30 percent.

Make your own earth friendly exchange

If you want to develop sustainable eating habits, experts say it’s important not to be overwhelmed.

“Starting an environmental nutrition journey can be one of the most exciting and rewarding adventures,” Robin R. Roach, MPH, EdD, RDN, director of the Environmental Nutrition Program at the University of Memphis, told VigorTip.

Adopting environmentally responsible eating practices doesn’t necessarily mean giving up meat entirely, Roach said. As research suggests, that could mean ordering a chicken burger instead of a beef burger for dinner.

“Too much advice on what you need to do and what not to do can throw you off before you start. Don’t get overwhelmed. If you decide to feed your family a plant-based meal once a month – it’s on many levels It’s an extremely important decision,” she said.

Choosing plant-based alternatives for part of your diet can really make a difference in reducing your carbon footprint.

Dr. Jinan Banna, a registered dietitian and associate nutrition professor at the University of Hawaii, told VigorTip that plant-based protein sources can be a good substitute for meat products.

“For example, eat some beans instead of steak,” Banner said, adding that plant-based proteins typically contain high amounts of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals without too much saturated fat.

However, Banna points out that not every environmentally friendly exchange is automatically healthier. For example, choosing skinless chicken over beef may help reduce saturated fat intake, but poultry generally has less iron than beef.

The future of sustainable nutrition

Sustainable nutrition is a relatively new trend. The 2019 EAT-Lancet was one of the first evidence-based frameworks to outline a healthy and environmentally friendly diet.

More research and policy changes are needed to develop sustainable guidelines for different demographics.

“The general advice to ditch meat doesn’t make sense because sustainable diets will vary from situation to situation,” Banner said. “For example, reducing animal-source foods may be beneficial in high-income countries, but may not be the case in undernourished low-income countries.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainable eating. Ross said his team’s research may encourage people to assess their personal eating habits to see where they can make meaningful exchanges.

“Diet is one of those things you can do on your own. You can start making changes,” Ross said. “Maybe as we talk about this more and more, it will become part of the social norm to think about what we put in our mouths, not just how it tastes or how it nourishes us, but how friendly it is to the planet. “

what does this mean to you

If you’re considering a sustainable diet swap, remember that you don’t have to change all of your eating habits overnight. Small changes can have a big impact. As a starting point, this quiz from The New York Times can help you understand the carbon footprint of your current eating habits.