Photo: Xochi Romero / Unsplash
We know, we know… you’ve seen a million articles like this one. You’ve probably even read most of them. But here you are, and that’s because you’re still not eating as green a diet as you’d like, even though both your body and the environment would benefit. So in honor of National Food Day, let’s talk about eating a greener diet one last time — then let’s actually go and do it.
There’s no way to dance around the dirty fact that the way we eat — especially here in America — leads to all sorts of environmental degradation and contributes significantly to climate change. If that’s not enough to convince you to at least take a stab at some of the suggestions below, eating a greener diet should also benefit your health and give you more energy.
But changing the way you eat is really, really hard. Our taste buds have evolved to want the juiciest, fattiest, yummiest bites of sustenance. Addiction to things like sugar and processed food is a real thing. If you try to go straight from frozen pizzas to blueberries, it’s going to be a rough transition.
With that in mind, here are ten ways you can start eating an environmentally-friendly diet right now. We begin with the easiest changes before progressing toward the eco-conscious diner’s more trying duties. Pace yourself as you work your way down the list. You’ll be a vegan-organic-urban farmer before you know it.
1. Get the Deets on Your Beets (Educate Yourself)
You can check this one off the list after reading this article. If you’re inclined to go a little deeper, we suggest taking a look at the 2015 report on food sustainability published by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. These are the guys and gals that do a bunch of research and recommend what goes into the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years. Unfortunately, the committee’s recommendations regarding the environment didn’t make it into the final version, but only because bureaucrats decided that sustainability fell beyond the guidelines’ mandate. We’re not so sure we agree.
2. Say Bye-Bye to Bottled Water (And Plastic Bags)
Bottled water is wasteful and environmentally irresponsible. What could be worse than using oil to manufacture a receptacle that takes a thousand years to biodegrade? “But they’re recyclable!” you say. Some are, but only one in five are ever actually repurposed. Factor in all the energy used for transportation, not to mention the fact that it takes three liters of water to bottle one liter, and it’s pretty obvious why ditching plastic is one of the first steps to eating a greener diet. Instead, drink from a reusable water bottle. If you don’t like tap water, opt for a filter, which should only set you back $20 to $30. Same goes for plastic bags. Bring a tote and on the days you forget — well, don’t forget.
3. Buy Organic
Yes, organic fruits and vegetables really are more environmentally friendly than non-organic produce. Benefits include more fertile soil; reduced fertilizer and herbicide use; less energy needed for growing; and more carbon retained in soil. Contrary to popular belief, there’s little evidence to support the much-hyped opinion that organic agricultural products are healthier and safer to eat than non-organic ones. Unfortunately, it’s exactly that erroneous thinking that allows organic farmers charge more for their treasures. While your body may not get an extra boost from eating organic, if you can spare the cash, the environment certainly would appreciate it.
4. Buy Local
You might be surprised to know that buying a pint of strawberries from the farm stand down the road might not be all that much better for the environment than buying a pint of strawberries grown a thousand miles away. There’s much more to an agricultural product’s carbon footprint than transportation. One thing you can be sure about, though, is that fresh, local produce is more nutritious (and often better-tasting) than its distant relatives. But buying local is about more than the science. In addition to supporting nearby businesses, farmers markets are good, old-fashioned fun. The sense of community and exposure to beautiful, seasonal ingredients cultivates a positive attitude toward health and nutrition, which in turn, encourages people to eat a diet that our planet can better handle.
5. Make Sustainable Seafood Choices
Our fisheries are collapsing. Nearly one-third of fish stocks are “biologically unsustainable.” At the same time, the world is eating more fish. The math obviously doesn’t work out, which is why it’s important to know what kind of fish your local sushi joint is slicing up. The best way to do that is with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website (there’s an app, too). Just type in a species of fish or type of sushi and Seafood Watch will grade every imaginable iteration based on where and how it was caught and farmed. That’s the easy part. The hard part is saying no to your favorite unagi roll.
6. Eat Less Meat (You Knew It Was Coming)
There is much amiss with the way we raise and eat meat in America. Gigabytes of articles have been written on the subject. Long story short: Factory-farmed meat is unhealthy for humans and cruel to animals. It’s also the leading driver of climate change. Giving up beef would be better for our planet than giving up cars. And then there’s the land and water pollution. All this so we can eat cheap protein pumped with antibiotics. So what can you do? Well, eat less meat. Beef and pork are worse for the environment (as well as your health) than fish and chicken. And when you do feel the desire to indulge, opt for grass-fed beef and dairy, free-range chicken and sustainably-farmed pork, lamb and fish.
7. Ditch Animal Products for Plant-Based Food
Once you cut back on your meat consumption, you’ll need to replace all those steaks and pork chops. May we suggest plants? The health advantages of a plant-based diet are extraordinary: Lower blood pressure; weight loss; sharper vision; better skin; and a lower risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. A chunk of meat or a poached egg (look for pasture-raised) is acceptable every now and then, but for the most part, eating things like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds is the path to eco-enlightenment and well-being. Oh yeah, shifting to a plant-based diet could cut greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds and save $570 billion in damages related to climate change. Not too shabby. You sure you still want that burger?
8. Avoid Certain Processed Food
Processed foods are rarely the best option for your body or the planet. They’re loaded with additives like sugar and salt, as well as preservatives that extend shelf life. The often-excessive plastic packaging is a bane on the environment and could even be responsible for introducing harmful chemicals into the food it supposedly protects. Particularly terrible processed foods to avoid include bacon, granola bars, instant ramen, dried fruit, flavored nuts, fruit snacks, margarine, microwaved popcorn and ketchup. As you can see, this stuff is ubiquitous. A whopping 60% of Americans’ calories come from “ultraprocessed” food — food that contains ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen, like coloring, sweeteners, artificial flavors and other additives. Only 1% of Americans’ daily calories come from vegetables. Yikes.
9. Banish Bad Palm Oil from Your Home
Palm oil is fueling deforestation, killing wildlife (orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants) and burning Indonesia to the ground. So you should probably stop buying it, right? Not so fast. For starters, palm oil is in half of all packaged products sold in grocery stores. That’s everything from cookies and crackers to soap and makeup. To make matters even more complicated, it goes by many names, several of which don’t include the word “palm” or “oil,” making it difficult to spot on packages. But the craziest thing about palm oil is that it’s actually the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world. Replacing it with other oil-producing plants wouldn’t make sense.
The real issue is that demand for palm oil has skyrocketed, leading to rapid deforestation and critical habitat loss in places like Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for gargantuan plantations. And believe it or not, the solution isn’t boycotting palm oil; it’s growing and producing it sustainably. As an eco-friendly consumer, you have a responsibility to make sure you’re purchasing brands that use only responsibly sourced, sustainable palm oil. Here’s a corporate report card from the World Wildlife Fund to get you started. Here’s some more information from Eco Watch. And finally, another report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. We never said it’d be easy, but with a little research and some discipline, you can send a message that unsustainable palm oil is unwelcome, unnecessary and uncool.
10. Grow and Forage Your Food
Urban gardening is all the rage. By using rooftops, patios and even fire escapes to grow fruits and vegetables in places like New York City, ambitious gardeners are producing more food that doesn’t need to be processed or transported before its eaten. That’s good news for our bodies as well as the environment. But if you live in the city, the idea of planting and nurturing edible fauna in the tiny space you call your home might seem sort of impossible. Well, it’s not. Here’s a robust guide to starting an urban garden. And here’s another primer on cultivating a vegetable garden within the confines of your apartment. The rest is up to you. If you’re lucky enough to live near some wildlands, you might want to consider foraging (or wildcrafting). Just make sure you know what you’re putting in your mouth.