Low-carbon dieting: What you need to know

Dietary-sourced greenhouse emissions would drop by about 35% if Americans replaced half the animal-based foods they eat with plant-based foods, a study suggests.

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Changing what’s on our plates can help heal the planet.

Changing what’s on our plates can help heal the planet.


A strong argument can be made that more of us should follow a low-carbon diet, with food production and dietary preferences linked to climate change altering the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that food production — including post-harvest activities like transportation — accounts for up to 37% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Consumer food purchases account for about 16% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change influences food production by disrupting growing seasons and crop yields, leading to food insecurity and less nutritious food. Eating closer to carbon-neutral can help an overstressed climate.

What can we do? For one thing, consider serving beans instead of beef. University of Michigan researchers found that dietary-sourced greenhouse emissions would drop by about 35% if Americans replaced half of the animal-based products they eat with plant-based foods.

An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that eating patterns leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions are healthier in several ways, including providing more dietary fiber and less saturated fat.

If you’re making food choices with the climate in mind, one thing to consider is whether the choices you make support sustainable farming and manufacturing practices. These include opting for certified organic when possible and seeking out meat products from producers who practice regenerative agriculture, which involves grazing practices that rebuild topsoil, a carbon-sequestering resource.

Organizations like Climate Neutral are now certifying food and beverage brands that have taken steps to measure, offset and reduce their carbon footprint to net-zero.

A low-carbon diet also includes buying locally produced foods. This cuts down on transportation-generated greenhouse gases. Also, produce from the local farmers market or community-supported agriculture programs are less likely to be packaged in plastic, which is another way they are lower on the carbon scale.

Cooking from scratch is a big step, too. Packaged, processed food is very expensive in terms of environmental impacts.

And consider that Americans discard about a quarter of the food they buy. Food waste is a contributor to planet-warming methane emissions. The carbon-emitting resources involved in producing the food are likewise wasted.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.

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