You can have a more sustainable power supply by swapping one item at a time
Key points to remember
- Swapping an item for a greener alternative in your overall diet can help reduce your carbon footprint.
- Beef has the highest environmental impact among other commonly eaten foods.
- Plant-based alternatives are not always sustainable. Asparagus and almonds, for example, require a lot of water.
It’s not always necessary to switch to a plant-based diet to eat more sustainably. Swapping out just one food, especially if it’s a beef product, can have a significant impact on your carbon footprint, according to a new study.
Americans who eat beef could reduce the carbon footprint of their diets by up to 48% simply by replacing one serving of food a day with a more environmentally friendly alternative, the researchers wrote.
The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, follows a large-scale project by researchers to identify the carbon footprint of American diets.
In a survey of nearly 17,000 Americans, about 20% of respondents said they ate at least one serving of beef daily. According to Diego Rose, PhD, MPH, the study’s lead author and professor of nutrition and food safety at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, beef alone accounts for more than 40% environmental impact among other foods.
“If there was a way to reduce carbon-intensive intakes to the median, we could actually achieve significant savings on the overall carbon footprint of American diets,” Rose told Verywell.
The researchers ranked the foods according to levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the water scarcity footprint (a measure of irrigated water relative to the regional level of water scarcity ). They found that poultry and pork were more “planet-friendly” than beef, as beef production generates eight to 10 times more greenhouse gases than poultry production.
According to the World Resources Institute, beef uses more land and fresh water and generates more emissions per unit of protein than any other common food.
When cows digest their food, they release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Chickens can also release a small amount of methane, but not on the same scale. Some ranchers 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.
Rose said sustainable swaps are still essential despite these efforts.
“The volume of beef consumption in this country is so large that we cannot sustainably produce enough beef to meet this level of consumption. So somewhere along the way we will have to reduce that,” he said.
It also helps to find substitutes for vegetables that require a lot of water or are grown in places where water is scarce. For example, almonds and asparagus are mostly grown in California, a state that regularly experiences droughts exacerbated by climate change. Researchers have found that replacing asparagus with peas can reduce the footprint by around 48%, while replacing almonds with peanuts can reduce the footprint by more than 30%.
Make your own planet-friendly trades
If you want to adopt sustainable eating habits, experts say it’s important not to get overwhelmed.
“Beginning an environmental nutrition journey can be one of the most exciting and meaningful adventures,” Robin R. Roach, MPH, EdD, RDN, environmental nutrition program director at the University of Memphis, told Verywell.
Roach said adopting eco-friendly eating practices doesn’t have to mean giving up meat altogether. As the study suggests, that could mean ordering a chicken burger instead of a beef burger for dinner.
“The plethora of suggestions on what to do and what not to do may overwhelm you before you begin. Don’t be overwhelmed. If you decide to serve your family a plant-based meal once a month, that’s a hugely important decision on many levels,” she said.
Choosing plant-based alternatives for part of your diet makes a difference in reducing your carbon footprint.
Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, registered dietitian and associate professor of nutrition at the University of Hawaii, told Verywell that plant-based protein sources can be a good trade-off for meat products.
“For example, have beans instead of steak,” Banna said, adding that plant-based protein often has plenty of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals without too much saturated fat.
However, Banna noted that not all eco-friendly exchanges are automatically healthier. For example, choosing skinless chicken over beef can help reduce saturated fat intake, but poultry is generally lower in iron than beef.
The future of sustainable nutrition
Sustainable nutrition is a relatively new trend. The 2019 EAT-Lancet was one of the first to present an evidence-based framework for healthy and environmentally responsible eating.
More research and policy change is needed to create sustainable guidelines specific to different demographic groups.
“A universal recommendation to ditch meat would make no sense, because sustainable diets look different in different circumstances,” Banna said. “For example, reducing animal-source foods in high-income countries may be beneficial, but may not be in low-income countries where undernutrition is rampant.”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainable food. Rose said her team’s study could encourage people to assess their individual eating habits and see where they can make meaningful trade-offs.
“Diet is one of those things you can do yourself. You can just start making changes,” Rose said. social norm to think about what we put in our mouths not just in terms of how it tastes or how it feeds us, but also how friendly it is to the planet.”
What this means for you
If you’re considering making sustainable food swaps, 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 New York Times quiz can help show you the carbon footprint of your current eating habits.