Food is responsible for more than a third of greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity, according to the United Nations. And the highest emissions are attributable to foods of animal origin, including red meat, dairy products and farmed shrimps.
This has prompted many scientists to try to determine what kind of diet could have the least impact on the environment, with veganism seeming to be the preferred choice.
But new research may offer some comfort to those unable to give up animal products, suggesting that small changes may not only be enough to reduce your individual carbon footprint, but also improve your health.
Researchers at Tulane University in the United States have investigated the effects of certain simple, easily achievable dietary changes on the population’s carbon footprint. They analysed data from 7,753 adults and children representative of the US population, then identified the most frequently consumed foods with the greatest environmental impact, in order to exchange them for substitutes that were nutritionally similar but less harmful to the planet.
“For us, substitutes included swapping a beef burger for a turkey burger, not replacing your steak with a tofu hotdog,” said Anna Grummon, lead author and assistant professor of paediatrics and health policy at Stanford University. “We looked for substitutes that were as similar as possible.”
Small changes on the plate
Published in the journal Nature Food, this research suggests that simple swaps could be enough to reduce your carbon footprint. These findings could encourage more consumers to make simple but effective efforts in favor of the environment.
In detail, the researchers explain that replacing beef with chicken, or cow’s milk with plant milk, could reduce the carbon footprint of the average person’s diet by 35%. And while the study did not set out to identify healthy alternatives, the researchers found that this also improved the quality of the participants’ diets by 4-10%.
“Cutting dietary carbon emissions is accessible and doesn’t have to be a whole lifestyle change,” said Diego Rose, senior author and nutrition programme director at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
“It can be as simple as ordering a chicken taco instead of beef when you go out. At the grocery store, grab soy or almond milk instead of cow’s milk. That one small change can have a significant impact.”
While some people have no trouble adopting a more planet-friendly vegan diet, others are less able to overhaul their eating habits in a major way. However, the study shows that relatively minor changes, or at least more accessible ones, can help preserve both the environment and our health.
“There is overlap between sustainable diets and healthy diets,” Grummon added. “Changing just one ingredient, making one swap, can be a win-win, resulting in meaningful changes in both climate outcomes and how healthy our diets are.”