MealEnders Blog

5 Steps for Constructing an Environmentally Friendly Diet [w/ Surprising Stats ]

By MealEnders
April 19, 2017

Not surprisingly, “Getting healthy” is the top New Year’s Resolutions for 2018–followed by getting organized, living life to the fullest, and learning new hobbies. As the environment’s health becomes a larger and larger concern (2017 was the hottest year on record, and carbon dioxide emissions are at an all-time high), we felt that we should focus some of our attention on the planet. Luckily, what tends to benefit the environment also tends to be healthy for us. These five lifestyle changes can help you build an environmentally friendly diet–one that reduces your impact on the planet while you improve your nutrition and health, lose weight, and get fit.

environmentally friendly diet

Buy local produce

FOR YOU: As soon as a piece of fruit is picked or a vegetable is harvested from the ground, its nutrients start to degrade–which means that the longer it takes to get to you, the fewer nutrients you’re getting. It can take days, weeks, even months for your produce to get to you if it’s being shipped internationally–a far cry from the few hours it takes for the apple from your local farmer’s market to go from orchard to your mouth. Plus, eating locally means eating seasonally–which means that the produce you’re buying tastes its best, so you can use less sugar, salt, and fat when preparing it. Head here to find some local farmer’s markets near you, or consider signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box–each week or every two weeks, you get a box of locally harvested fruits and vegetables delivered straight to your door.

FOR THE PLANET: In the US, food travels an average of 1,500 miles to land on your plate. Those food miles–the distance a food travels from where it is harvested to where it is purchased–mean increased carbon dioxide and other fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming and pollution. In fact, research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that the conventional transportation systems use 4 to 17 times the amount of fuel as local systems. Transporting food such distances also requires more packaging materials, which also takes a toll on your carbon footprint.

LEARN MORE: If you’re interested in learning more about your own environmental footprint, check out the Nature Conservancy’s calculator.

environmentally friendly diet

Eat more plant-based protein

FOR YOU: Americans eat an average of about 270.7 pounds of meat per year–more than almost any other country in the world (only Luxembourg is ahead of us). But more and more research is elucidating the health benefits of reducing meat consumption as its intake has been linked to a higher risk of death, heart disease, and cancer. And adding in plant-based sources of protein, like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds, has its own benefits: they’re high in fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that promote health and protect against disease. You don’t need to go full vegan every day to reap the benefits; start small by omitting meat from your diet just one day per week (Meatless Monday has been a popular trend for a few years now and has many recipes and resources). Experimenting with plant-based recipes is a great way to build a more environmentally friendly diet and can also be a fun way to get you out of your food rut!

FOR THE PLANET: By almost any measurement, meat is costly to produce. According to a recent study, one quarter pound burger requires 6.8 pounds of grains and forage, 52.8 gallons for drinking water and irrigating feed crops, 74.5 square feet for grazing and growing feed crops, and 1,036 BTUs for feed production and transport (a measure of fossil fuel energy). Plant protein, especially unprocessed sources like dry beans and lentils, are significantly less costly. This chart, from the Environmental Working Group, breaks down full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions; use it to inform your choices on protein. And, as with your health, going meatless even for one day a week helps the planet: if everyone in the United States gave up animal products once a week for a year, it would have the same environmental impact of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

LEARN MORE: To see how your protein choices affect the environmental impact of your plate, check out the LA Times’ interactive graphic that lets you choose between different proteins, starches, fruits and vegetables, and drinks.

environmentally friendly diet

Reduce waste

FOR YOU: In America, around 25% of the food we buy goes to waste–and the bulk of that (61%) comes from nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. Some of this food becomes waste simply because people are opting to purchase processed convenience foods as opposed to farm fresh foods, and some of it is the result of over purchasing. Buying in bulk and choosing to eat convenience foods instead of the food in the fridge can result in food spoiling before it gets eaten. While purchasing convenience foods may be easy it causes you to miss out on valuable nutrients and can take a big hit on your wallet. It’s estimated that the average family of four spends $1,365 to $2,275 on wasted food annually. Food waste in households occurs for a number of reasons, including a lack of awareness, spoilage, impulse and bulk purchases, poor planning, and over-preparation. If spoilage is a big problem for you, improve your own nutritional health, reduce waste, and create a more environmentally friendly diet by planning meals around soon-to-go-bad foods: make broths with vegetable scraps and chicken carcasses or have a “kitchen sink” meal once a week to use up anything left over (The Kitchn has some great resources and tips for using up specific foods). To tackle food waste from all angles, start integrating these strategies into your shopping, planning, prepping, and eating habits.

FOR THE PLANET: Food waste is the single largest component sent to American landfills. Once in the landfill, food waste is broken down and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, food waste is responsible for 135 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Food waste also wastes other resources, including water. Wasted food takes up 25% of the total freshwater consumed by agriculture–as well as packaging resources like paper, glass, and plastics.

LEARN MORE: ReFed is a collaboration of businesses that is committed to reducing food waste in the United States. They’ve brainstormed up 27 different solutions for reducing food waste and its impact that could, if implemented, could save 1.6 trillion gallons of water and $5.6 billion in consumer spending annually.

environmentally friendly diet

Join a meat CSA

FOR YOU: When you do eat meat, consider sourcing it from a meat CSA, or meat share: similar to a produce CSA, your membership provides you with different cuts of locally raised, slaughtered, and butchered meat. Locally raised animals tend to be grass-fed or pasture-raised, which results in numerous health benefits for you: their meat is lower in fat and calories and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, beta carotene, B vitamins, and certain minerals. There’s also a lower risk of food borne illnesses when you buy local meat, as the huge industrial slaughterhouses where factory farmed meat is processed simply provide more opportunities for contamination. Joining a meat CSA offers more than just health benefits: since you’re buying directly from the farm, you’re bypassing all the middlemen that deal with importing, shipping, and further processing. Plus, you’ll probably expand your recipe repertoire: you’ll likely receive some cuts of meat that you haven’t used before. “Nose-to-tail” cooking is an emerging trend; check out The Whole Beast, a cookbook devoted to using up every part of the animal.

FOR THE PLANET: Factory farms have a huge impact on the environment: they account for nearly 27% of methane emissions which, as previously mentioned, is a huge contributor to global warming. In addition, animals raised on factories generate more than 1.2 billion tons of manure per year–more than that produced by the entire US population. And while some manure can be valuable, such large numbers are detrimental. Its overproduction can affect ground and surface water quality; in fact, the EPA’s 2000 National Water Quality Inventory found that 29 states specifically identified animal feeding operations as contributors to to decreased water quality.

LEARN MORE: Most states have at least one meat CSA to try out.  Since many farms will sell cows and other animals by the whole, half or quarter, you might be able to go in on a meat share with a few families. This is a great way to also get your friends excited about creating a more environmentally friendly diet. It might require a research of your own to get started, but the health and environmental benefits of eating locally make it all worthwhile.

environmentally friendly diet

Bike instead of drive

FOR YOU: Burn calories without even setting foot in a gym: even biking at an easy pace, you can burn about 300 calories in an hour of biking (calculate the calories you can burn on your specific commute here). And as more Americans spend more time sitting at their desks (the average American spends 13 hours a day sitting), physical activity is more important than ever for both managing weight and preventing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Perhaps just as important, however, are the psychological benefits: recent research published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that commuters who either walked or biked to work demonstrated improved psychological wellbeing than those who drove to work; in addition, bikers and walkers report lower levels of stress and improved concentration. As a bonus, you can save money as you reduce the amount you spend on gas, tolls, parking, and car maintenance. If biking to work isn’t an option, aim to replace smaller car trips (to run to the drugstore or return a book to the library) with biking or walking.

FOR THE PLANET: Cycling is the most energy efficient mode of transportation, as bikes produce no meaningful pollution. Commuting via car, however, is not: the average car burns 25.2 gallons per year just idling in traffic. And each gallon of gas burned results in 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. If one out of every car commuter switched to biking, those carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by 25.4 million tons per year. Even the production of a bike is more environmentally friendly than cars, as they require fewer materials and resources for shipping.

LEARN MORE: Think biking to work is dangerous? Or that you need to spend thousands on a fancy bike and new gear? These myths, and more, are dispelled at Bicycling.com. Once you’re ready, read up on these 10 tips for first-time bike commuters.

Whether you incorporate just one of these resolutions or all of them, your body and the earth will benefit. Think about challenges that are meaningful to you and that support your personal and global goals. This is what creating an environmentally friendly diet and lifestyle is all about. When setting goals, remember that small changes are still worthwhile: every mile you bike instead of drive saves gas. Get your friends and family on board to make even more of an impact!

*Individual Results May Vary