Concerned about the planet? Your grocery list might be the biggest player in your ability to make a difference. Recent research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Food suggested that our current food-raising practices are responsible for more than one-third of the world’s greenhouse gasses. These emissions influence more frequent and destructive weather patterns, wildfires that destroy homes and fertile land, the flooding of coastal cities, and more.
The good news? Study after study on this topic highlight the power of making small dietary changes. For example, research from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that if Americans substitute just one unsustainable food for an eco-friendly alternative, it could substantially reduce the environmental toll of the collective U.S. diet.
What are a few examples? Here’s the list climate-minded nutritionists shared with The Healthy. And, if you’re looking for wise ways to get more out of the foods you buy (or grow—good on you!), check out 7 Genius Nutrition Hacks a Dietitian Just Inspired Us to Try.
Eat more plants
The Nature Food research revealed another significant data point: The climate toll from animal-based foods is at least double that of plant-based options. This is largely because it takes a lot more land, water, energy, and other resources to produce a pound of animal meat compared to plant protein, explains Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, Senior Dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe For Survival.
And some researchers believe that we’re actually underestimating the impacts of our land use and deforestation practices. “That’s not saying you have to go vegan,” Hunnes says. “But cutting back on meat and dairy products is the most action-oriented thing you can do to be a more environmentally-conscious consumer.”
So, how much should you cut back? Here’s what happens if you skip meat just one day a week.
Choose better meat
The type of meat you do buy matters, too. Hunnes says that grass-fed and grass-finished meat options—raised without antibiotics—tend to be the more sustainable options. By grazing, animals like cows encourage grass growth and nutrient turnover in the soil, which may help offset cattle’s climate impact, according to a study published in Agricultural Systems.
Studies also strongly suggest paying attention to where your meat originates. For example, places like Brazil—one of the largest beef exporters in the world—clear vast amounts of rainforest in order to raise their cattle. As a result, a PNAS study suggests a South American steak can have more than 10 times the climate impact than US-raised beef. (Also worth a read: 7 Meat Substitutes This Nutritionist
Look for local produce
“Ultimately, you’re always better off getting food locally whenever possible,” Hunnes says.
She recommends searching for a local community-supported agriculture program, often called a CSA. “You get farm-fresh produce picked that morning delivered right to your house,” she says. “It’s a great way to support your local farmers, give back to the community, support the local economy, and it avoids plastic.”
However, you may have experienced that it can be difficult—and limiting, depending on where you live—to source everything locally. So the experts say that as you’re trying to choose products more sustainably, pay attention to which products require air transport, like berries, green beans, sugar snap peas, and asparagus. June 2021 research suggests these items can have a carbon footprint that’s 50 times greater than food that travels by boat.
A smart workaround: Hunnes advises you buy frozen versions of these less-than-eco-friendly items. (In fact, these fruits and vegetables are often better frozen.)
Source sustainable seafood
Overfishing is a major contributor to climate change. According to research published in Frontiers in Marine Science, choosing more sustainable options for our seafood could actually make fish populations more climate-resilient.
“The most environmentally friendly [seafood] would likely be those that are wild-caught and caught with a line-and-pole method—meaning only one fish is caught at a time,” Hunnes says. “Industrial fishing methods are abhorrent when it comes to sustainability, as they pull up all types of bycatch.” What’s bycatch? Hunnes explains these are “unintended species [that] end up dead when they are thrown back into the ocean.”
One easy trick is to look toward Alaska, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, a Brooklyn-based dietitian and the author of Unapologetic Eating. “The Alaska state constitution actually guarantees all seafood out of the state is both wild and sustainably caught,” she says.
Hunnes adds that if you’re eating seafood for the omega-3 benefits, there are plenty of plant-based swaps that ensure you’re getting enough of this powerhouse nutrient. “One ounce of walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, or hemp seeds have enough [omega-3 content] in them to meet the recommended amounts,” she says.
Avoid ultra-processed food
Ultra-processed food is a broad category that includes meat products like sausages, frozen meals, sodas, and many snacks and candies. At first glance, most of these foods are heavily packaged in plastic—itself an ecological nightmare. But that’s not even the whole story.
A 2020 report published in The Lancet reviewed just how environmentally damaging these convenient, low-cost, and typically low-nutrient foods are. Ultra-processed food items:
- often feature wheat and corn as key ingredients, industrial crops that contribute to poor soil quality and chemical run-off into water supplies.
- tend to contain palm and soy oils, which are major drivers of deforestation.
- require multiple stages of processing, packaging, and distribution.
And frankly, they’re not very good for your health. Check out these 10 things that happen when you nix processed foods from your diet.
Trim your food waste
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that food waste in America accounts for an astonishing 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. That’s about one pound of waste per person, per day, nationwide (which equates to nearly $2,000 tossed in your household trash every year).
Not only is this waste inefficient and inequitable, it generally winds up in landfills where it produces large amounts of methane—a gas that’s 25 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide emissions.
Now, a portion of this food waste occurs before it could even reach your refrigerator thanks to spoilage and inefficiencies along the supply chain—and that’s just another reason to shop locally whenever possible. But a study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics says that even the most frugal Americans still waste about nine percent of the food they buy.
One way nutritionists recommend to reduce your waste is to freeze fresh food.