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Eating Green to Save the Planet?

Updated: Apr 29, 2023


Nutritional experts agree that the optimal diet for human health includes mostly plant-based foods. Most diet plans (such as The Mediterranean Diet, DASH, Weight Watchers, and South Beach) highlight the importance of eating less processed foods and more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. Along with stressing the values of plant-based foods, the green eating movement considers how our food choices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.


An eco-friendly diet emphasizes choosing foods and behaviors that lower one’s personal carbon footprint.


What does food have to do with climate change?


Everything we eat needs to be grown or raised, and then processed, transported, and prepared. Each of these steps creates greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat and contribute to climate change. It is estimated that about one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is linked to food. One study (Poore and Nemecek, 2018) estimated that 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from our food supply. 58% of that percentage of food GHG comes from animals. And within that percentage, 50% is from beef and lamb production.


Chart Credit: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions' [Online Resource]


Down on the farm: the gas they pass


In choosing which foods make the cut in an eco-friendly diet, one must consider the phases from seed to waste. This starts with farm production. In addition to the water, feed, and land use needed to raise livestock, there is another concern: the gas they pass.


Cows produce methane as a natural consequence of their digestion. Ruminants are hooved herbivorous mammals that acquire nutrients by fermenting plant foods in a specialized stomach prior to digestion. In ruminants such as cows, sheep, and deer, the digestive system has microorganisms that live in a sophisticated ecosystem where bacteria and fungi break down the sugar and starch from plants. This process, called enteric fermentation, produces volatile gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Simply put, a tiny amount of methane gets into the air whenever a cow burps or farts. Methane is as much as 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide; its effects last around 12 years (compared to CO2 at 100 years). Even though the effects of methane are shorter in duration, the effects are so much more potent thus making reducing methane gas from livestock crucial to buy us time to create sustainable solutions to fight climate change.



Consider all food production


Even with plant-based foods and products, Eating Green advocates suggest taking into account the components involved in getting the food to your table. In general, the more inputs required to complete the farm-to-fork journey, the higher the carbon footprint.



Processing foods require more energy to manufacture, package, and transport.

We have grown accustomed to having fresh produce year-round. To achieve this, our fruits and vegetables are grown in indoor greenhouses or shipped from other regions and countries. Foods grown by simulating the growing climate indoors require large amounts of energy.


This can also apply to seafood. While lower in emissions, some fish and shrimp are farmed, which requires energy to heat and pump large amounts of water.


The more transportation, such as boats, planes, trains, and trucking, used to get the food to us, the greater the impact on the climate. Depending on the country of import, the farming methods can contribute to water scarcity or deforestation.


Another element contributing to a food’s carbon footprint is packaging. The closer a food is to its natural state, the less packaging is involved. Simple choices like buying whole apples instead of precut individually packaged ones or selecting a single large tub of yogurt instead of several single serving cups can reduce the amount of waste heading to the landfill.


Consider your protein


Protein is an essential nutrient to sustain a healthy body. Protein is considered the building block of life. It is needed for growth and development as well as for helping make new cells and repair cells. However, one doesn't need to rely on animal products to get enough daily protein. Many animal sources of protein can come with high contents of unhealthy fats and sodium. The good news is protein can be found in an abundance of foods. Check out the chart below to see the possibilities and how various sources contribute to green house gas emissions and the cost per gram of protein,




Steps You Can Take to Eat Green:

  • Reduce meat and dairy consumption

  • Emphasize a plant-based diet

  • Plan your meals to reduce overbuying and food waste

  • Eat fresh instead of processed foods

  • Choose loose produce instead of packaged in bags or plastic clamshells

  • Bring your own bags when you shop

  • Eat what is in season

  • Support local food systems


Know what you are eating and check the label:


  • Number of ingredients

  • Ingredient names

  • Country or location origination

  • Wild versus farmed

  • Manufacturers' commitment to the environment such as sustainable practices, carbon offsets, and farming practices

In a future blog, we will share information on the environmental impact of food waste.


Eating green can be a part of a healthy lifestyle while reducing one's carbon footprint. Food choices can not only improve our health but the health of our planet. Let us know in the comments which food decisions you were already making and anything you think you plan to change!

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