4 Ways to Reduce Your Environmental Impact

In a previous article, we focused on some of the problems our current food system is facing and introduced the concept of sustainable diets. The focus of this article is to provide practical advice on how we can change our eating habits to create a more sustainable world.

In order to do this, we’ll need a good definition of what sustainable diets are. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has one. They define sustainable diets as diets, “With low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.”

Our Impact on the Environment

In this article, we’ll be focusing on the first part of the definition: “diets with low environmental impacts”. Our earth is becoming increasingly more polluted with each passing year. With over 7 billion people living on the earth, we need to be sure we are making good use of the resources we have. We may not recognize it, but most of the foods sold today carry many consequences with them.

Even though we live in an age of so much technology and wisdom, we seem to have no end of environmental problems. The depletion of our water reserves, GMOs, the spread of super-weeds, pollution, deforestation, the disposal of animal waste, global warming, and trash disposal are just some of the problems we are facing. While we cannot solve these problems overnight, we can begin to do our part. Think of it this way: if we don’t change our personal eating habits, how can we expect our society to change. If enough people change their purchasing habits, companies will listen; the increasing availability of organic food (even at stores like Wal-Mart) is proof of that.

We have no more excuses, its time to make a change. To help with this, we’ve come up with 4 practical ways you can change your eating habits to better follow a sustainable diet:

1. Eat Locally Grown Food

One of the simplest things we can do to combat wasted energy (from our food being schlepped cross-country and around the world) is to eat locally grown food. Your local farmers market is the best place to start. (If you’ve never been there before, we’ve written a great guide on how to get started.) Go to the farmers’ market before you head to the grocery store—you may be able to check off a good part of your grocery list.

Although many assume the farmers’ market is more expensive than the supermarket, the prices are usually competitive and sometimes cheaper than you can find elsewhere. In addition, you will be supporting your local farmer and the food you get will be fresher, healthier, and—most likely—more delicious.

If you live in the countryside, be sure and take note when you see fruit and vegetable stands by the side of the road. During growing season, you can’t find a better source of produce. Also, when the harvest reaches its peak, you can get some great deals.

Food cooperatives (co-ops) are a third option. They sort of fill the gap between farmers’ markets and supermarkets. They are more expensive, but you can be certain that you are getting quality food from local farmers. They also tend to have bulk bins for dry foods like wheat, rice, beans, and nuts. Buying in bulk is another way you can save some money, reduce your trips to the supermarket, and keep a lot of food packaging from ending up in a landfill.

2. Eat Seasonally

Our food system today has blessed us with availability and convenience. Whatever foods we desire are available at the grocery store—sometimes 24/7. Decades ago it was quite different. People were forced to eat foods that were in season. If it was December and your grandparents wanted to eat watermelon, they’d have to wait until summer. Although convenience has its positives, there are still benefits to buying foods that are in season.

First, eating food in season is cheaper. It comes down to supply and demand; when a farmer needs to sell 2,000 pounds of freshly picked strawberries, he’ll probably be willing to drop the price.

Second, by eating seasonally, you’ll be consuming fresher, and thus, more nutrition-packed food.

Third, eating seasonally is better for the environment. Foods in season are much more likely to be grown locally—thus reducing carbon emissions. Eating seasonally also greatly reduces the energy used to store or preserve food. In season, food is also easier to grow without heavy use of chemicals and pesticides.

3. Eat Less-Processed Foods

It may seem obvious, but processed food has more of an effect on the environment than less-processed foods. Processed foods have many added costs. First, we pay for the energy it takes to cook and process the food; second, we must pay for the packaging; third, we have to pay for the shipping and the distribution. Depending on what you’re buying, you’re ending up with a lot of wasted energy, environmental damage, and an end product that is in no way ‘fresh’.

The simplest thing we can do eat less processed foods. Fresh foods are not only more nutritious, but they do not contain the added fats, salt, and sugar—not to mention the chemicals and preservatives. If you still have a craving for crackers or cookies, make them at home the old fashioned way. They’ll taste better, and you’ll know what you’re eating.

Depending on what you tend to buy, you could also save a good amount of money. Remember, when you eat processed or prepared foods, you’re paying for the convenience they offer. For example, buying a 14-ounce container of hummus at the grocery store will probably cost you 4 or 5 bucks. However, if you were to make the hummus at home it wouldn’t cost you much more than a dollar and would take less time than a trip to the store.

4. Eat Plant-Based

Now we come to (probably) the most controversial of our suggestions: going vegetarian or vegan for the planet. Although the research on the subject clearly points to its validity (i.e. plant-based diets are good for the planet), it is surely the hardest for most people to accept and adopt. Many of us are too stubborn or stuck in our ways to give vegetarianism, or even partial vegetarianism, a try. However, the fact remains that eating less meat is quite possibly the best thing you could do for the planet.

You may be asking: how can that be possible? The crux of the matter is this: we kill about 10 billion livestock every year in America; and in order to raise them, we need to feed them. According to David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University: “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.” This means American livestock consume more grain each year than would be needed to feed 2 ½ times the U.S. population.

Producing meat is not an energy efficient (i.e. sustainable) enterprise. Here’s a look at some other figures.

• In the U.S., it takes an average of 28 kilocalories of fossil fuel (such as oil) to produce one kilocalorie of animal protein (meat). Even a child could tell you that 28:1 is a terrible ratio.

• For every pound of animal protein produced, animals are fed nearly 6 pounds of plant protein. Keep in mind that plants contain far less protein than meat, so the discrepancy is actually much higher than 6:1.

• It takes about 100,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef. The same amount of water could be used to produce 111 kilograms of wheat or 200 kilograms of potatoes.

Eating meat is simply not sustainable in the long run—not for us or for the planet. Why should we continue wasting resources and polluting the earth? The day will soon come when we will be forced to change our habits; why not start today?

If you consider nothing else, consider this: According to the most current research, 925 million people in the world are hungry (and many, many more are malnourished). If we were to give up the practice of eating meat, it would not be difficult to feed the world.

In our next article will deal more directly with this issue. We will be focusing on how our diets can, “Contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” If you missed Part 1, be sure to check it our as well.

If you’re looking for more information about vegetarian diets check out these articles:
The ABC’s of Vegetarian Nutrition
Enough Protein
The High Cost of Inexpensive Food
Disparity in the Meatless Monday Debate

If you’re looking for some great plant-based recipes, check out the Life and Health kitchen. A staff favorite is Kenyan Beans and Rice—this is one recipe sure to satisfy even a carnivore’s hunger pangs!

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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