Eco-Friendly Food: A Guide to the Most Sustainable Diet You Can Eat

November 19, 2020

A burger, lettuce, chips, and tomatoes sit atop a wooden table.

There are many factors, inside and outside the grocery store, to consider when you’re shopping with sustainability in mind.  When it comes to sustainability in food, it is often the case that what you’re eating, or your food choice is more important than where your food comes from.  For example, animal protein contributes up to 51% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (UN FAO).  The majority of this percentage is attributable to raising cattle and producing beef.  If you’re looking to eat more sustainably, there are other meat (and non-meat) options that can help reduce your diet’s carbon footprint.

What Makes Food More Environmentally Friendly?

Resources such as water, land, fertilizer, feed, and even packaging are all elements of any food's environmental impact.  What makes foods eco-friendly is a combination of two things; the ratio of product yield to GHG emissions, and the effect the production process has on the soil, air, and water around it.  Below you can find some sustainable food sources to fulfill a healthy and happy diet. 

The Most Sustainable Protein Sources

If you’re interested in a meatless diet like veganism, you might be worried about getting enough protein without meat.  However, there are some incredibly protein-rich and sustainable plant-based options out there.  These options include:

  • Beans — Beans and legumes are a great source of plant-based protein.  Black beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans have 14 grams of protein per cup, and chickpeas have 12 grams of protein per cup.  Beans and legumes can improve soil fertility where they’re planted, and use only 1/4th of the water required to produce the same amount of beef
  • Chia SeedsChia seeds are a low-water consumption crop that can be added to smoothies, hot cereals, salads, and even desserts.  They are a high-protein additive, measuring at 4 grams of protein per ounce.
  • Nuts and Seeds — Nuts are a great source of protein, and Our World In Data notes that nuts create net land use benefits.  This is because nut trees, which store carbon, are currently replacing croplands, which generally do not.  Peanuts are the nut highest in protein, measuring at 38 grams of protein per cup, which is equal to half a pound of ground beef.
  • Lentils — There are four main types of lentils; brown, green, red, yellow, and specialty, each varying in size and flavor.  Each type of lentil is packed with protein, with cooked lentils having about 17 grams of protein per cup.  Lentils and other pulses are low-water crops, and create their own fertilizer, reducing nitrogen output. 

The Most Sustainable Meats

Due to the relatively high environmental impact meat has, you may be wondering if you should eat meat at all.  However, if you are a meat lover, there are a lot of sustainable options out there.  These options include:

  • Poultry — Poultry, like turkey and chicken, require less land, less feed, and less water than beef, making them a more sustainable option.  As always, it’s important to know where your meat is coming from.  Poor poultry slaughter and processing can spell disastrous environmental and social harm.
  • Pork — As with other options in this list, pork has a lower environmental impact than beef.  Of note, pork producers can expect to use at least 75% less water than beef producers.  However, as with poultry, conscientious consumers must assess a provider’s husbandry practices and the living conditions they maintain for their livestock before making a purchase.
  • Fish — Without the need to use massive tracts of land or resources on livestock maintenance, fishing can have a dramatically smaller environmental impact than many other animal proteins.  Although negative impacts vary significantly by species, location, husbandry methods, and other factors, sustainably caught and farm-raised fish are generally very good choices.
  • Lamb — For a particularly hearty red meat option, lamb has been touted as a sustainable replacement for beef.  When grazing, sheep are less likely to tear up the root systems of grasses, and they are known to eat weeds and other invasive plant species, which preserves soil quality and allows grazing fields to recover quickly and be reused.  Sheep also take less space to raise than cattle. 
  • Ostrich — Many consumers don’t yet realize it, but ostrich meat is actually the most sustainable red meat option there is.  Their digestive process produces no harmful methane gas, and they require dramatically less water and land to raise when compared to beef — using one only 1/50 of the land that grass-fed beef requires.  This makes ostriches extremely sustainable compared to other red meats.
  • The Most Sustainable Produce Items

    Carbon dioxide emissions from plants and plant-based products can be 10 to 50 times lower than animal products, according to charts at Our World in Data.  Since farming produce is generally lower maintenance livestock production, vegetables also consume far fewer resources.  The most sustainable produce items include:

    • Tomatoes — Tomatoes produce 1.4 GHG emissions per kilogram of food, making them one of the more sustainable pseudo-vegetables (they are actually a fruit!) with an almost equitable emission-to-yield ratio. 
    • Peas — At 0.9 kg GHG emissions per kg of food product, peas are quite low on the Our World in Data chart.  Peas are part of the legume family that makes their own fertilizer from converting atmospheric nitrogen in the roots.  This makes them a great sustainable vegetable option.
    • Root Vegetables — Root vegetables actually have a positive yield to emissions ratio on the Our World in Data, emitting 0.4 kg of GHG emissions per kilogram of food product.  Root vegetables include potatoes, yams, onions, carrots, and beets, and are all great sustainable food options. 
    • Apples — Apples have a positive yield-to-emissions ratio, at 0.4 kg of GHG emissions to one kg of food product.  Because apple trees are perennials, they produce fruit year after year, which saves water and land usage and returns carbon in the soil, acting as a carbon sink. 
    • Bananas — Bananas have very low carbon emissions, also approximately 0.4 kg per kg of product.  And because bananas grow their own packaging, they are a great low-plastic fruit option in many grocery stores.
    • Citrus Fruits — Citrus fruits are one of the lowest items on the Our World in Data chart, with 0.3 kg of GHG emissions to one kg of food product.  Like bananas, citrus fruits come with their own natural packaging, which cuts down on plastic consumption.  Citrus trees can also be drought-tolerant, requiring less irrigation. 

    The Most Sustainable Grains

    Grains are also low maintenance when it comes to water and energy consumption.  Upping your whole-grain intake is a great way to start eating more suntainably.  The most sustainable grains include:

  • Sorghum — Sorghum is a cereal grain that is one of the most sustainable grains.  It has incredible water-use efficiency, and is heat tolerant.  This means in hot climates (and a warming world), it’s water intake doesn’t have to be increased as much for yields to remain stable.
  • Wheat and Rye — Wheat and rye are equitably measured on Our World in Data’s chart, producing 1.4 kg of GHG emissions for every kg of food product.  This low footprint, as well as wheat’s ability to grow in dense fields - thereby using less land - make it a sustainable grain option, despite being a relatively water-intensive crop. 
  • Maize — Maize, or corn grains are low on the Our World in Data chart.  Corn is a perennial crop and exhibits versatility as a grain, used in popcorn, cornmeal, and as a vegetable, which make it a go-to eco-friendly option for a variety of meals. 
  • Tips for Making Your Diet More Eco-Friendly

    Making your diet more eco-friendly may seem like a huge undertaking.  However, there are some easy and fulfilling ways you can start making the turn toward a sustainable diet today.

    • Grow Your Own Produce — This is not only a great way to reduce your grocery bill, but having your own garden can reduce food waste, transportation emissions, and the amount of packaging you’re purchasing.  Most household vegetables can be grown from scraps you’d typically throw away. 
    • Focus on Reducing Food Waste — According to the UN FAO, food waste generates more than 3.3 gigatonnes of GHG emissions a year.  Instead of throwing out old produce or meal scraps, try a composting bin.  Vegetable scraps and animal bones can also be used to make homemade stocks for soups, and fruit rinds can be used to flavor preserves. 
    • Have Meatless MondaysMeatless Mondays is a campaign that started in 2003 to help cut back on the negative environmental and personal health impacts of eating meat every day.  Meatless Mondays can be a great opportunity to experiment with plant-based alternatives.  Similarly, it can be an easier transition into sustainability for frequent meat eaters than going full vegan or vegetarian. 
    • Shop in Bulk — Shopping in bulk can help you reduce the amount of packaging that you’re buying and ultimately throwing away when you’re going to the grocery store, which is another way to increase your food sustainability.  Buying in bulk can also simplify the transportation and production process of goods, which can affect emissions.  It’s easier to buy in bulk when you follow a recipe, so you can get an idea of what you need to buy far in advance and store items in your pantry or freezer so you’re always ready to cook.

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