Can your diet save the planet?

We can't fight climate change by simply tweaking what we eat, but the best diet to preserve the planet may also be the best one for your health.
A Handful of Arbequina Olives, freshly harvested
A dietary pattern that’s low in planet-warming foods, like meat and dairy, and high in planet-friendly foods, like beans, nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and whole grains, may also lead to improvements in blood pressure and blood sugar.Enrique Diaz / 7cero / Getty Images
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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

Say what you will, but the science is in. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, produced by more than 100 scientists from around the globe, consequences of climate change, like extreme temperatures and intense downpours, are disrupting our food production systems in a way that impacts yields. At this point, food shortages might translate to higher prices or reduced availability of certain items, but if we don’t begin to alleviate our climate problem, experts believe we will face significant issues feeding our growing population.

Climate change and its impact on our food system is a complicated issue, but here are a few things at the crux of it. Extreme weather can delay the planting of certain crops, thereby shortening the time during which food is grown. Weather patterns can also make pests more difficult to control, and therefore, they destroy more of the food that’s grown. The nutrition quality of food is also at stake, meaning that certain crops may supply reduced amounts of vitamins and minerals.

If the idea of leaving our planet and future generations better off isn’t enough to sway you to make some dietary changes, here are some planet-friendly eating practices that will leave you better off, too.

Rely on more plants for protein

Pulses — the term for plant-based proteins, like beans, lentils, and peas — are an incredibly sustainable source of protein. They require less nitrogen fertilizer compared to other crops, and therefore, have a lower carbon footprint. They also require less water to grow, and many types of pulses can grow in dry environments.

They’re not just good for the planet — they’re good for your body, too. Studies suggest that when people replace some of the meat on their menus for these plant-based powerhouses, it has a positive impact on longevity, reduces the risk of diabetes and heart diseases, promotes a healthier weight, and may cause a healthy shift in your gut bacteria.

And really, nothing could be easier than adding pulses to your menus. You can meal prep a batch of dried beans in your Instant Pot to use throughout the week, or pop open a lower-sodium can to add a quick hit of protein to meals and snacks. Pulses have chameleon-like qualities, so you can use them in a range of recipes, including sweet treats and savory dishes. Try them:

  • Whipped into dips and spreads
  • Blended into energy balls and other snacks
  • Roasted to create a crunchy snack or salad topping
  • Stirred into pasta, soups, and stews
  • To form the base of a natural veggie burger

Don’t worry about bloating and gassiness from adding beans to your menu; most people adapt to increasing amounts of these foods by taking it slowly at first and drinking plenty of water. Also don’t worry about the idea of combining plant proteins to make sure you have a so-called complete protein. This is an outdated theory. It’s only necessary to include a variety of nutritious plant-based sources throughout the day. Your body will do the rest.

Eat less meat

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You knew this was coming! Both this report and one released earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, suggest that cutting way down on meat consumption is better for the planet (not to mention your own health). No one’s suggesting you become a vegan or vegetarian (though that can be beneficial), but you can make a dramatic impact by beginning to scale back. Beef and lamb are associated with particularly high carbon emissions, so maybe begin your journey there.

The truth is, while you need protein and the nutrients found in beef and other animal products, you don’t need to get them from those foods, and in fact, we’re collectively better off getting them from plant-based sources. Instead of eating an animal-based protein at each meal, try one plant-based protein meal a day or perhaps, try a meatless day each week — maybe on a Monday when you’re more likely to be in tune with your health. In addition to foods from the pulse family, incorporate single-ingredient whole grains (like quinoa, oats, and brown rice) as well as nuts and seeds into menus. The USDA offers many suggestions for mixing up your protein options with more plants.

Here are some ideas to start you off.

  • Serve a main dish plant protein burger with a generous portion of green beans topped with toasted, slivered almonds.
  • Have a nourishing burrito bowl using black beans, brown rice, and a base of colorful veggies. Top with pumpkin seeds for added protein and crunch.
  • Make a flatbread pizza crust using chickpea flour and top with a non-dairy walnut pesto along with additional veggies.
  • Stir your overnight oats with shredded carrots and cinnamon and in the morning, add a drizzle of nut or seed butter. Use pea protein milk to boost the protein content even further.

Dial down your dairy habit

Dairy is another high-emissions culprit. Begin thinking of ways to consume less milk, butter, and cheese. These foods are rich in saturated fat and while that’s not the dietary evil we once thought it was, studies find that replacing them with healthier plant- or fish-based fats may result in a lower risk of heart disease. A dietary pattern that’s low in planet-warming foods, like meat and dairy, and high in planet-friendly foods, like beans, nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, and whole grains, may also lead to improvements in blood pressure and blood sugar.

Amanda Doetch / Getty Images/Foodcollection

So consider swapping your dairy foods for plant based options. Plant-based milks are an obvious choice, but you might like these other dairy hacks, too.

  • Choose foods like avocados, hummus, and other pulse-based dips to add creaminess to dressings, sauces, and sandwiches. Veggie purees, like butternut squash and pumpkin puree, are other options as are nut-based “cheeses” and “creams”.
  • Experiment with plant-based alternatives to yogurt and cheese. You’d be surprised at how delicious cashew cheese and coconut yogurt are!
  • Include plant-based sources of calcium regularly to make up for what you might be missing from reducing dairy consumption. Almonds, chia seeds, tofu, and canned white beans are some of the better options. Also, make sure that your dairy milk replacement is fortified with calcium. Some have more than others (I’ve seen some with none at all) so take a moment to check labels while grocery shopping.

Reduce food waste

Though it may not be intentional, you’re probably contributing to food waste, and according to the UN report, this is a major factor in climate change. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests foods you’re most likely to waste are leftovers, fruits, and vegetables. Tackling your waste situation involves planning ahead, and this can be a good health-boosting strategy, too. Here’s why: Deciding what to eat at the end of a busy day can feel daunting, and that can lead to grabbing something less healthful, like sodium-filled Chinese takeout. Here are some ways to reduce your waste that may also result in eating better.

  • Map out meals ahead of time — before you hit the market — so you know when you’ll be cooking at home and when you’ll be dining out. This helps you then buy only what you need. Bonus: Cooking meals at home is linked to a healthier diet with lower overall calories and sugar, even among people who aren’t looking to lose weight.
  • Make a grocery list and make sure it lines up to the meals you intend to prepare. Cross check it against the foods you have in your fridge to avoid purchasing duplicates that will go to waste.
  • Become familiar with your freezer. It’s nature’s food preserver. If you find yourself routinely in the situation of pitching produce, stock up on frozen produce instead, or try to freeze what you have before it spoils. For example, if your baby spinach looks less than stellar, blend it with a little water and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then use it in smoothies later on.
  • Store breads in the freezer to prevent spoilage.
  • Put meat and poultry in the freezer if you aren’t going to eat them within a few days of grocery shopping. Or you can cook ahead and freeze meals for later.
  • Share meals out to reduce leftovers, and try to use up what you bring home. Restaurant meals are notoriously high in sodium and one way to counter that is to bring on the veggies. When using up leftovers, create a more balanced meal by re-heating your doggie bag along with some frozen veggies. There’s usually plenty of sauce or seasonings to go around.
  • Get clear on so-called expiration dates, which are a source of confusion and food waste. It’s not critical to abide by many of these dates as long as you’re storing your food safely. The FDA’s Food Keeper app can help you decide if you need to toss something.

Source your foods locally when possible

Processing and transporting food contribute to carbon emissions (though to a lesser degree than meat production) so do your best to source foods locally and cut way back on heavily processed foods. Studies have linked heavily processed foods to weight problems, and one recent study examined why that may be. It turns out, people ate faster and consumed about 500 calories more per day on the processed food diet, resulting in an average two-pound weight gain during the study period. Finding convenient ways to eat locally, unprocessed or minimally processed foods may help keep you leaner in the long run.

  • Shop the farmers market first and the supermarket second to supplement with foods and ingredients you couldn’t source locally.
  • Try new recipes with seasonal ingredients. Sometimes farmers market foods are less familiar, but that doesn’t make them less delicious. It just may be that you need to experiment to find out what your family enjoys.
  • Try a CSA (community supported agriculture), which is sort of like a membership model to a box of farmed goods each week. The downside of these produce-filled boxes is that you might not get the veggies your family is used to eating, and you might wind up with limited variety — like all the kale, but smaller quantities of tomatoes. If you have any questions about what’s in a typical box, ask. When you get the answer, be realistic about whether you’ll use the selection because if most of your produce ends up in the trash can, this will do more harm than good.

It’s true that climate change is a complicated issue and solving it involves more than dietary tweaks. But it’s also true that by making some changes to your eating habits, you can improve your health while doing your part to make a positive difference on the planet.

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