how to: 4 steps to sustainable eating

4 Steps to Sustainable Eating: A Beginner’s Approach to a Low-Carbon Diet

So you want to lower your carbon footprint.

Or perhaps you’re looking for healthier, simple recipes (without a strict diet).

Maybe you want both.

If so, I encourage you to learn and practice sustainable eating – a new way to think about what and how you eat by going back to an old practice of eating.

What is sustainable eating?

Sustainable eating means adopting responsible habits around food that lead to a healthier planet and body.

It’s about balancing what we take from the planet in order to feed ourselves and what we ultimately give back and how that affects our environment. In essence, sustainable eating nurtures a healthy, maintainable balance between us and the planet, connected by food.

Combining diet and lifestyle, these practices extend far beyond what we put on the plate. They encourage us to make eco-friendly decisions all-around food – from how we source it to how we cook it and finally to how we get rid of what we don’t eat.

And while we’re cultivating a deeper and healthier relationship with the planet, our bodies reap the benefits, too. Returning to simple food and mindful eating habits improves the quality of what we eat and the nutrients we consume. This also strengthens our emotional and mental health by reframing how we think about food.

Whether you’re choosing to follow a sustainable diet for the health benefits or the environmental impact, I hope you find both.

How do I get started eating a more sustainable diet?

The beauty of sustainable eating is that it looks different for different people around the world. There are so many facets to sustainable eating and hundreds of ways you can lower your carbon footprint around food. How one person chooses to do it will be different than another.

This can also be a challenge.

For many of us, the overwhelming options can leave us in decision paralysis and scare us away from trying in the first place.

“Where do I start?”

“What’s going to make the biggest impact?”

“Am I doing it wrong if I don’t do this?”

Let’s avoid that confusion. I’ve divided everything you can do to lower your carbon footprint through food into four major categories. These four elements of sustainable eating cover nearly everything and whittle-down the question, “How do I get started?” into four simple steps:

  1. Choose food with a low carbon footprint.
  2. Eat locally-sourced food.
  3. Practice efficient cooking methods.
  4. Reduce food waste.

Think of these as your four pillars of sustainable eating. Start with the first pillar – low-carbon foods – and build habits around it until you find what works for you. Then, move to the next pillar, and build more habits.

You don’t have to start with the first pillar, either. If you don’t want (or aren’t ready) to change what you eat, choose more eco-friendly food sources. Buy from your local farmer’s market instead of the super-chain grocery store. It’s important to find the habits that make you happy. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable for you.

Let’s dive into each of these four areas of environmental eating so you have a deeper understanding of each.

choose low-carbon foods like cabbage for a sustainable diet

1. Choose food with a low carbon footprint.

This is the first step of following an environmentally-friendly diet, largely because it has the greatest impact. For those who aren’t familiar with the idea of a low-carbon diet, here’s a quick refresher:

Carbon (CO2) emissions are harmful greenhouse gases and the biggest contributor to climate change. Methane and nitrous oxide are second and third, both influencing the overall carbon footprint of food.

Food CO2 emissions: the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) associated with food production, processing, transporting, and retailing.

To practice sustainable eating, fill your diet with low-carbon foods and try to eliminate or minimize those with a high carbon footprint. Sounds easy, right? Not so much.

No comprehensive list of food CO2 emissions existed because no study exists that covers the depth of GHGEs around food for a wide enough scope.

So many factors go into the greenhouse gas emissions from food, and there is not enough research done on this topic to have a decisive carbon footprint for each food.

I created this quick ebook, Food & C02, to help you better understand carbon emissions of food and which foods tend to have smaller carbon footprints.

Here are some more general tips to help you get started:

  • Reduce or eliminate meat and dairy products from your diet. Several studies have concluded that avoiding these (especially red meat and cow products), is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact.
  • Eat produce that’s in-season. Asparagus ranks on the ten worst foods for the environment because of the carbon emissions involved in transporting it to the States via plane. When you eat it from a local farmer in the spring, the carbon emissions are significantly lower.
  • Buying less processed foods: While sugars, snacks, and oils scored lowest on carbon emissions by calorie, processed foods are not off the hook. These food items have hidden CO2 emissions and consume large quantities of water.
growing your own food, how to eat sustainably

2. Eat locally-sourced food.

This pillar could also read: Support local food sources. Start shopping at the local food market and pay attention to where food is produced. The less distance between you and the human who grew it, the better.

Behind meat and dairy, food production has a substantial carbon footprint at approximately 19% – 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). The system of food production covers a lot of ground: emissions from fertilizer, farm equipment, water consumption, soil nutrient depletion, food waste in the processing stage, packaging, and more.

The industrialization of our food system has allowed us to be more productive at the expense of our health and the environment. Corporate farms squeezed-out many mid-sized and family farmers, who couldn’t compete with the low prices of monoculture farming.

You can argue that the boom of the food industry has allowed us to feed more people, but frankly, not very well. Forty million Americans and 815 million worldwide are food insecure. That’s 10.7% of the global population struggling with hunger. Just ask Michael Pollan, or rather, read his books An Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food to hear the whole kernelled-story.

This pillar is closely-tied to the first – to eat low-carbon foods – because the distance food has to travel from farm to plate is one of the biggest if not the most important factor in determining a food’s ultimate carbon footprint. That said, I made this pillar its own because it is so important. Where you source your food matters.

Here are some tips to follow:

  • Shop at the local farmer’s market at least once a week. This also helps you eat seasonally. Definitely buy your meat there, if you eat it. These farmers and ranchers are more likely to treat their livestock well and will love to tell you about it. Be curious and ask them!
  • Check where the food item came from. If it had to travel by boat or plane to get to you, it’s worth considering a more local, land-bound option.
  • Choose ethical chocolate and coffee options. A chocolate bar with ingredients from a deforested rainforest emits more carbon than a serving of low-impact beef.
Super-Easy Frittata Variations You Can Make in a Flash​ 3

3. Practice efficient cooking methods.

After food production and transportation, how to transform ingredients into a meal also contributes roughly one-third of its entire life cycle emissions.

These carbon emissions account for food storage, cooking, cleanup, and kitchen energy. We’re not only looking at a timeline between when we start and stop cooking. Efficient cooking methods examine the timeline for food when it arrives in the kitchen to when it is ultimately eaten.

Home kitchens account for 1,850 lbs. of CO2 emissions per person each year, which drives 15% of the average food footprint. Food services (i.e. restaurants, fast food, and cafeterias) contribute another 1,740 lbs. or 14% annually.

That said, a home-cooked meal has a slightly lower carbon footprint than food from takeout and restaurants and plenty of health benefits. The average American dines out 1 in 5 meals, yet the carbon emissions from home kitchens and the food service are roughly the same. In summary: food services produce fewer meals for the same amount of carbon emissions.

I love to cook. (Obviously, otherwise, why would I have this website?)

But I recognize that many people don’t. It doesn’t give them joy. It feels like a burden or black hole of time that can be easily overcome with a premade meal. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it doesn’t taste as good as that Five Guys burger. (Debatable.)

The silver lining here is the meal kit. A recent study suggests that meal kit delivery services have a smaller carbon footprint than a homemade meal you sourced from the grocery store. Yes, all that plastic from the meal kit is not a good look for the environment, but meal kits cut carbon emissions by 33% because they create less food waste.

In my opinion, this is an awesome win for meal kit lovers and the planet. Meal kits effectively eliminate the middle man (and the food waste that goes with it) and bring the consumer closer to the farmer.

Here are some tips to reduce your kitchen emissions:  

  • Eat out less often. Choose to make your meals at home or try a meal kit rather than a quick takeout dinner.
  • Get rid of old and unused refrigerators. The refrigerator hogs the largest amount of the kitchen’s total energy at 30%, emitting 1,440 pounds of CO2 emissions annually per household.
  • Cook larger meals and less often. Cooking produces a lot of heat – 685 carbon emissions annually per household. Make larger portions you can use for leftovers, so you don’t have to cook as often.
  • To wash by hand or to wash by dishwasher… that depends on how efficiently your hand wash and how new and efficient your dishwasher. Unless you’re a super-efficient hand-washer, a full load for the dishwasher is the more economical option.
reduce food waste to lower your carbon footprint, especially among fruits and vegetables

4. Reduce food waste.

If food waste were its own country, it’s production, processing, and distribution of food would make it the third-largest producer of GHGEs behind U.S. and China, emitting 3.3 giga-tons of carbon emissions annually, according to a U.N. report.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FOA), the highest authority on global food systems and hunger, estimates one-third of all the food produced is lost or wasted.

Food loss occurs throughout the food processing system, and its impact expands beyond its carbon footprint. The loss of land, water, and biodiversity are other environmental factors that make food waste even more costly, the estimates of which researchers have not yet measured.

The FOA latest’s research highlights some “environmental hotspots” where certain types of food waste are especially heavy:

  • Cereals (rice and grains) in Asia due to the high carbon-intensity of rice production methods
  • Meat in Latin America, while small in volume, has a high carbon footprint in terms of land occupation and methane from cows
  • Fruit and vegetables due to large quantities that go uneaten and improperly disposed

Here are some simple ways you can reduce your carbon footprint at home by reducing your food waste:

  • Meal plan before you go to the grocery store and stick to it. Having a plan reduces the chance that you’ll buy ingredients you don’t need and can make recipes from ingredients you already have at home.
  • Freeze fruits and vegetables if you suspect they will go bad soon. Frozen fruit comes in handy for smoothies and baked desserts. Frozen vegetables find new life in soups, stews, baked dishes, and sauces like pesto or saag.
  • Compost what you do toss. When fruits and vegetables decompose, they release methane (a greenhouse gas), which today’s waste management systems do little-to-nothing to contain. Composting a simple solution you can do at home that requires minimal effort on your part.

In Summary

We’ve covered the four pillars of sustainable eating, and you can see, a lot of ground. But don’t feel intimidated! Anyone can follow an environmentally friendly diet simply by starting with a few steps.

Adopting new habits – or exchanging old habits for more ecological ones – is the key to this lifestyle. You don’t have to turn your life upside down to start. As you integrate more of these habits into your lifestyle, you’ll be able to take on more and sustain it for the rest of your life.

Whatever your reason for considering a sustainable diet, these four pillars will help guide you on your journey to a healthier, more environmentally-conscious life.


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