Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Eating
What you choose to put on your plate can make the most powerful impact on your personal environmental footprint. At least three times a day you make choices on how to calm your growling belly and stoke your body with fuel—these choices can create a lighter impact on Mother Earth, or a heavier one. In the modern agricultural system, plant foods are grown with the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and fossil fuels, which harm soils and promote monocultures. These plants are fed to animals, which are often concentrated on farms where animals live short, miserable lives, and their manures are concentrated, thus contaminating soils, waterways, and air. To top it off, food often travels long distances to get to our plates, and we waste about 40% of all food we produce. How can you change all of that? Start out by checking out my tips for making more sustainable food choices.
Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Eating
1. Avoid Highly Processed Foods. If a food product has been through many steps in manufacturing, with lots of ingredients coming from all corners of the world, the carbon footprint is higher for that product, due to traveling, manufacturing, and distribution. Think a nutrition bar with a long list of ingredients vs. a handful of nuts, which came from one source with minimal processing.
2. Choose Nutritious Foods. These are more sustainable because they use resources—water, farm inputs, soil—wisely to produce foods that contribute to good health. These foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruit, pulses, nuts, and seeds. However, using these precious resources to produce foods with poor nutritional quality is not sustainable (i.e., soda, chips, candy), because you squander resources that could have been used to produce foods that nourish the body.
3. Avoid Overeating. This is probably the most serious sustainability issue of all, because producing food to be consumed in excess of the calories we need wastes resources. America produces far more calories in our food supply than we need for daily subsistence.
4. Avoid Purchasing Fresh Foods Out of Season. Foods that travel long distances are not typically sustainable. When you purchase fruits in the winter from far away countries that are flown in by air, the environmental impact is high. However, keep in mind that some places are more efficient at growing things even if they are a bit farther away. For example, California’s climate may make some produce a more sustainable option than buying produce that was grown in a heated greenhouse.
5. Use Preserved Foods in the Off Season. Preserved foods that are lightly processed, such as canned, dried, and frozen, are more sustainable options during the off season, compared to produce that is grown in heated greenhouses or shipped in from far away places (air transport is the worst). Preservation of foods is a practice that humans have been following through the eons as a means of survival.
6. Consider Organic Foods. Organic food regulations significantly limit the synthetic pesticides that can be used in crop production, and they support more sustainable soil practices, such as the use of cover crops, composting, and manures.
7. Reduce Food Packaging. The packages (cereal boxes, clam shells, individual cups) can make a huge impact on sustainability, as packaging fills up landfills. Select minimally processed whole foods with little packaging as your best bet. After all, a banana and a sweet potato have natural packaging.
8. Trim Food Waste. This is a significant factor in sustainability, because about 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. Unfortunately, we use vast resources—soil, water, fossil fuels, crop inputs—to produce food that is never eaten. Food waste primarily occurs at the consumer level, where people can make a difference.
9. Limit Your Number of Food Shopping Trips. Studies show that traveling to buy groceries may be very impactful in the total number of miles foods travel to get to your plate. So try limiting the number of trips you make, and condense your food travel trips to take advantage of your location. For example, if you’re headed to the farmers market, do all of your food-related trips in that nearby location for the week. And remember that food miles—the number of miles food travels to get to your plate—is an important part of sustainability, but the production of food has a potentially larger impact on sustainability.
10. Reduce Meat Consumption. Research consistently shows that animal foods have a much larger carbon and water footprint than plant foods. That’s because in today’s modern agriculture, we grow plants to feed to animals, which are inefficient converters of plants into food. We could cut out the middleman (animals) and eat those plants directly.
11. Grow Some of Your Own Food. One of the most sustainable things you could ever do is to start a garden—even starting with one pot on your patio. No food miles, no packaging, no fossil fuels, plus the joy of spending time in the soil with living breathing plants under the glorious sun. What could be more sustainable than that?
Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Updated: March 31, 2019
For other blogs on sustainable eating, check out these: