How to switch to a climate-healthy diet

Your diet is a massive contributor to your carbon footprint. Let’s put plenty of plants on our plates to help the climate.

Imagine a world where all supermarkets display the carbon footprint and environmental impact of every single item on their shelves. You know the carbon footprint of every bag of chips, how much farmers were paid for those potatoes, and the amount of water used to produce your snack (by the way, a similar model already exists). Would you keep buying the same foods you always do? Probably not. Unfortunately, our reality is a bit different: Most food supply chains still lack transparency, and making the best buying decisions to benefit the planet isn’t always easy. 

But let’s take a step back: Why is what we eat so relevant for the planet? In a nutshell, global food systems are responsible for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with meat accounting for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production. If global diets stayed the way they are, by 2030 the livestock sector alone would exhaust 50% of our 1.5 °C carbon budget. In other words, half of the CO2 we’re still allowed to generate in the next decade would already be used up, and our chances of averting a climate catastrophe would be quite slim. 

Luckily, things are (slowly) changing. Between 2014 and 2017, veganism in the US increased by a staggering 600%. This is great news for the climate, since cutting meat and dairy products from our diets could reduce our carbon footprints from food by up to 73%. This can only mean one thing: Each and every one of us has the power to help the climate with every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here's how to get started.

Sources: BBC, Our World in Data.

8 tips to green up your daily meals

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Focus on what you eat. Did you know that even the most sustainably-produced beef still emits more carbon emissions than the least sustainable tofu? In other words, choosing plant-based foods over animal products is way better for the climate. But remember: This doesn’t mean plant-based foods are harmless to the environment. Tofu made with soybeans from deforested land, for instance, can have a higher carbon footprint than chicken (as long as chicken is not fed with that same soya). It’s a tricky conundrum. Our tip: Eat more local and seasonal plants, and keep your diet nice and varied.

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Challenge yourself. If you’d love to become a vegan or vegetarian but need this to happen gradually, start by slowly adding more plant-based or meat-free meals into your diet. Ever heard of the “vegan before 6 p.m.” diet? It was invented by Mark Bittman, an American food journalist who was forced to improve his diet because of health issues. It’s simple: You only eat vegan food before 6 p.m., and after that you can switch back to an omnivorous diet until you go to bed. Alternatively, try out a vegan or veggie week and see how you feel afterwards.  

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Enlist a friend. Switching to a different lifestyle can be harder for some than others, so make sure you have fun in the process! Ask a friend to go vegan with you so you can check back on each other’s progress. Prepare meals together, send each other daily pictures of your lovely dishes, organize a vegan potluck dinner with your best pals, or start an Instagram account documenting your endeavors.

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Learn how to cook plant-based ingredients properly. How can you turn vegan chicken or tempeh into delicious meals? And how do you cook your veggies so they retain as many nutrients as possible? Consider taking a vegan cooking class to become a pro vegan chef. Here are a few insider tips: Steam-cooking, stir-frying, and using a microwave are some of the best cooking methods to preserve nutrients. Also, keep the peel on when you can, and eat some of your veggies raw.

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Familiarize yourself with alternative protein sources. If you’re thinking about scraping animal proteins off your plate, it's important to be aware of what your body needs and how you can get it. Vegans should be sure they get enough iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. Get your doctor’s help to plan your diet properly, and consider taking supplements if needed. Check out our guide on alternative protein sources to find out more.

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Always pick sustainable, high-quality ingredients. Plant-based foods still have a carbon footprint and an environmental impact. For example, avocados and cashew nuts need loads of water to grow, while soy is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon — although most of it is used to feed livestock (another reason to skip animal products). That’s why it’s important to eat as much seasonal and local food as possible, pick organic when you can, and keep your diet balanced. 

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Take it slow. Not ready to be 100% vegan or a vegetarian? Then consider replacing beef with chicken or pork, which have a lower carbon footprint, and try cutting your overall consumption of animal proteins. Reducing is always better than doing nothing at all! Think about it: A beef burger requires 3,140 liters of water to be produced. On the other hand, a vegan burger uses 75-95% less water, 93-95% less land, and generates 87-90% fewer emissions. So next time you’re craving a steak, think twice about the massive difference you could make for the planet with one single meal. 

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Reduce food waste. Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to shrink your carbon footprint, only buy what you need, reorganize your fridge so you don’t leave anything behind, cook large meals which you can freeze or eat the following day, or use apps like TooGoodToGo to prevent food waste at the retail level. In need of more tips to cut food waste? Read our guide to make sure all the food you buy becomes food you eat.

The big picture

When it comes to our eating habits, there are so many ways to shrink our carbon footprints. Whether you want to fully transition into a vegan lifestyle, or are simply looking for simple ways to help the planet in the kitchen, what really matters is to do what you can to shift to a climate-healthy diet. In a nutshell: Eat local and seasonal products, show some love to plant-based foods, reduce your consumption of animal proteins, and keep your diet balanced to help the planet.

Nicoletta Maestrini
by Nicoletta Maestrini
Communications Assistant
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