In building a healthier plate that focuses less on red meat and more on plants, you can help reduce your carbon footprint.
Whole grains, such as whole-wheat pasta, are a sustainable choice.
When you reach for plant-based foods, you’re doing your health a favor. But did you know that the planet is thanking you, too?
Research shows that many of the foods that are most harmful to human health are also the worst for the environment — contributing to everything from climate change to the loss of animal and plant species around the world.
“Choosing a better, more sustainable diet is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment,” says Michael Clark, PhD, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and lead author of an article published in November 2019 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The article explores the links between food, environment, and human health.
The biggest winners, according to the research: plant foods, such as legumes, whole grains, and vegetables. The worst offenders: animal products, especially red meat.
Indeed, meat and dairy together account for about 14.5 percent of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Of the total livestock sector, beef and dairy contribute the most emissions (41 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
Meanwhile, a study published in June 2018 in the journal Science, revealed livestock’s extra-large footprint on the environment. Meat and dairy provide just 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein but take up 83 percent of farmland. On top of that, forests around the world, including rainforests, are being cleared to make room for livestock, especially cattle ranching, according to the FAO. This deforestation not only causes habitat loss for animals and plants, threatening biodiversity, it also destroys the forests, which play a critical role in helping to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
When it comes to eating for environmental health, the No. 1 takeaway is to choose plant-based over animal-based foods. And if you’re not ready to nix choices like burgers and steak entirely, reducing your intake of red meat is a move in the right direction. Large-scale modeling has shown that cutting back on meat and dairy by half could achieve up to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Below, find seven steps for improving your diet that are also friendly to the environment.
If You Axe One Meat From Your Diet, Make It the Red Variety
The environmental costs of producing red meat — chiefly beef and lamb — take the greatest toll on the top five environmental indicators, including greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of soil and water resources, and disruption of ecosystems, according to the PNAS study.
Producing processed red meat delivers the second worst environmental impact. Examples of processed red meat include hot dogs, ham, sausage, and beef jerky, as the World Health Organization notes.
Ideally, seek to replace red meat with high-quality plant protein, but even opting for red meat only now and then would be an improvement, per the PNAS study.
More on what makes for a high-quality plant protein later.
Lean on Nutritious Lentils for Plant-Based Protein
Plant foods like beans, peas, and lentils are some of the most healthful foods around and can easily substitute for animal protein, according to the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. And a study published in May 2016 in Frontiers in Plant Science calls legumes a win-win for agricultural sustainability.
Nutritionally speaking, in addition to plant protein, legumes provide fiber — a key nutrient, albeit one most Americans don’t get enough of — and B vitamins, and they may play a role in helping prevent certain cancers and heart disease, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which specializes in research and advocacy on agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, and drinking water pollutants, ranks lentils as the No. 1 climate-friendly protein.3
Opt for Unprocessed, Nutritious Whole Grains Over Those That Are Refined
Cereals and grains are unsung heroes, scoring high marks for health and environmental benefits — as long as they are minimally processed and whole. “Whole grains offer far more benefits to our bodies than refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients,” explains Lilian Cheung, RD, director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In addition to fiber, whole grains contain B vitamins, minerals, and protein, as well as compounds that act as antioxidants, helping the body prevent disease, Cheung says.
Take it one step further by opting for ancient grains like buckwheat, barley, wild rice, spelt, and teff, which are even more nutritious and can improve soil health and help offset carbon emissions, according to a report by the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature and Knorr.
Swap Farmed Salmon for Shellfish, Such as Mussels
Long a darling of healthful eating, salmon has a serious dark side. Salmon are now almost exclusively raised in farms — essentially pens, where densely packed fish are often continuously fed antibiotics to prevent bacterial infections, per an article published in September 2018 in PLOS One. That research shows that this practice can breed antibiotic resistance. As the BBC reports, farmed salmon are also routinely treated with chemicals to ward off sea-lice infestations, which have become common in recent years.
In general, wild salmon is said to be safer for personal health than farm-raised. Environmentally, some seafood watchdog groups consider wild Alaskan salmon to be a good option, although that, too, has issues, according to Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans.
An excellent alternative: shellfish, like oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops. All are nutritional powerhouses and high in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and minerals, per Oceana. Shellfish also have a low environmental impact and, because they are filter feeders, can actually help clean water resources.
Make Room for Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been cultivated for centuries for their flavor and nutritional value, and a study published in January 2021 in Food Science & Nutritionfound that adding just one serving of mushrooms to a meal significantly increases fiber and several micronutrients that we often don’t get enough of, such as vitamin D and potassium. In fact, certain types of mushrooms exposed to UV light are the only edible plant source of vitamin D, according to the National Institutes of Health. In addition to a variety of other nutrients like B vitamins, mushrooms contain substances that have demonstrated antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects in laboratory and animal studies, according to a review published in July 2016 in Molecules. What’s more, research suggests that mushrooms may help protect against cancer, including breast cancer in premenopausal women.
As for their environmental impact, mushrooms are noted for their climate-friendly ability to absorb carbon — in other words, they may help reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. They rank among the top 10 food groups in the aforementioned report from the WWF for Nature and Knorr.6
Trade Asparagus for Broccoli for a Smaller Carbon Footprint
While healthy, asparagus is one of 10 common climate-damaging foods, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. For starters, growing asparagus requires 258 gallons of water per pound, while broccoli, by comparison, uses about 34 gallons per pound. In addition, most asparagus sold in the United States is flown in from Latin America, which significantly increases the vegetable’s carbon footprint. Broccoli, on the other hand, is often grown in the United States and consistently ranks as one of the cleaner vegetables, requiring relatively few of the pesticides that have been associated with problems for both human health and the environment, according to a review published in July 2016 in Frontiers in Public Health.
Most people know broccoli for its health benefits. Like other cruciferous veggies, it is rich in a variety of plant compounds that may help reduce inflammation and cancer risk, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Cut Cheese (From Your Diet) or at Least Choose It Wisely
Cheese is third on the EWG’s list, generating the third highest greenhouse gas emissions after lamb and beef. These foods produce the highest emissions in part because they derive from ruminant animals, which generate methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the EWG. Cheese also has a high carbon footprint because it requires a lot of milk — about 10 pounds for 1 pound of hard cheese produced.
If you’re not ready to say goodbye to cheese, the NRDC recommends opting for brands produced locally, to help offset transportation emissions; buying organic products, which aren’t produced with chemical pesticides and fertilizers; and choosing less-dense products, like cottage cheese, which require less milk to produce.