Eco-Friendly Eating Made Easy: Tips for Transitioning to a More Sustainable Diet
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Eco-Friendly Eating Made Easy: Tips for Transitioning to a More Sustainable Diet
by Devineé, Move to Root
Before you lift your utensils to enjoy your next meal, take a moment to reflect on the journey your food took from farm to fork.
Each component of the food system plays a critical role in our nourishment and the health of the planet. The interrelated activities involved in the production, processing, distribution, and, ultimately, consumption of food items have far-reaching impacts. We live in a time when our current food system threatens future food production, harms the environment, and fails to adequately nourish the growing global population, which is expected to reach a whopping 10 billion by 2050.1 But the good news is that there are steps each and every one of us can take to improve these outlooks!
For example, agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have called for a shift to more sustainable diets and food systems.2 But what is a sustainable diet, you may ask? As defined by the FAO:
Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.2
But does a diet with such abilities actually exist? It certainly does! The EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets and Sustainable Food Systems report states that a diet that includes more plant and fungi-based foods (hello, Fy protein™!) and fewer animal foods can improve human and planetary health. Therefore, to help you transition to a more plant-centered sustainable diet, we have compiled several tips that will make the switch as seamless as possible.
Key Components of a Sustainable Diet
Before we dive into the tips, let’s take a look at the key components and benefits of a sustainable diet. These components include environmental, social, and economic factors that must be balanced to successfully achieve sustainability.
The environmental dimension of sustainability encompasses utilizing water, land, energy, and other resources at a conservative rate with a neutral or positive impact on the surrounding environment.4 One way to measure the impact that the food system has on the environment is through the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and various chemicals that get trapped in the atmosphere and retain heat — leading to climate change. Our current food system, which is centered around meat, eggs, and milk production, generates roughly 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally.1 Livestock farms also use 70% of agricultural land, while grazing and the production of crops to feed the animals drive biodiversity loss, land degradation, and deforestation — holy cow.1
On the other (much more positive) hand, plant-based foods produce a smaller environmental footprint than animal-derived foods. For example, transitioning to a sustainable diet that emphasizes the consumption of unprocessed plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds with minimal amounts of fish and animal products has been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an impressive 49%.5 In addition, a plant-based food system can benefit the environment by reducing land use by 76% and water use by 14–21%.5
While many believe environmental sustainability is the most important factor, the social dimension is just as vital. The social dimension of sustainability includes the cultural, community, and religious factors that influence our food choices.6 Social sustainability also highlights the need to improve food security, food access, and social equity.6
This aspect of sustainability also encompasses the treatment of our non-human animal friends. Factory farming is an unsustainable method of raising animals for food that confines countless cows, pigs, chickens and more in horrendous conditions. This method of farming has become common practice in western societies and has contributed to many animal rights concerns. By moving towards a more compassionate and sustainable food system, we can begin to reduce food insecurity and hunger, while improving nutrient-dense food access for all.
From an economic standpoint, sustainability encompasses a range of factors that contribute to the long-term viability and resilience of the food system. It involves ensuring equitable access to affordable, nutritious food while fostering economic growth and stability for all stakeholders involved. Sustainable food production holds the ability to increase financial stability for farmers, factory workers, and distributors. In turn, the income supports local economies, generates jobs, and improves financial well-being.7
A sustainable food economy promotes efficient resource allocation, minimizes waste, and supports local food production, distribution, and consumption. It emphasizes fair trade practices, encourages the development of resilient farming communities, and invests in research and innovation to enhance productivity. By integrating economic considerations with social and environmental factors, economic sustainability in the realm of food seeks to create a prosperous and inclusive food system that can meet the needs of present and future generations.7,8
Transitioning to a Sustainable Diet
Now that you know the importance of adopting a sustainable diet as well as some of the factors it encompasses, here are several tips you can use to transition to a more eco-friendly way of eating.
How to Get Started
Embarking upon the journey towards more sustainable eating habits may seem overwhelming at first. But the good news is you don’t have to transition to a sustainable diet all at once. The trick is to implement small, practical habits that ultimately lead to lasting change. And one of the best places to start is eliminating meat consumption just once a week. With campaigns like Meatless Monday, you can begin your week by excluding meat consumption for a day, which may inspire you to reduce your consumption throughout the rest of the week.
Once you have adjusted to reduced meat intake, you may find it helpful to determine what plant(and fungi!)-based eating pattern fits your unique dietary preferences. Research has shown that the most sustainable diets include vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, and flexitarian diets — all of which center around plants!9 While a vegan diet completely excludes all animal-derived products, a vegetarian diet typically allows for the consumption of eggs and milk. In addition to plant foods, pescatarian diets include the regular consumption of sustainable fish. If you aren’t comfortable with completely eliminating meat, a flexitarian dietary pattern may be for you! Flexitarian diets emphasize the intake of plant and fungi-based foods with occasional meat consumption. Nonetheless, if you desire to substantially improve your overall health and the health of the environment, the best sustainable diet to adopt is vegan or vegetarian.6
Tips to Reduce Meat Consumption
Beyond eliminating meat once or twice a week, reducing your overall intake requires careful planning and preparation. To avoid reverting to old dietary habits, try creating a menu of sustainable meatless meals that you know you will enjoy throughout the week. Once you’ve created your menu and have a list of ingredients, you can meal-prep some or all of your meals ahead of time to prevent purchasing meals that contain meat. This is also a great opportunity to experiment with different plant and fungi-forward recipes that incorporate your own cultural foods. By including your culture in your meatless meal preparations, you may find it easier to adhere to a sustainable diet.
Another way to reduce your animal protein intake is to experiment with seasonings that mimic the flavor of meat. After all, many of the sauces and seasonings that make meat desirable are plant-based! From soy sauce to coconut aminos, miso, mushrooms, nutritional yeast, sea vegetables (like nori and kelp), caramelized onions, roasted garlic, toasted nuts and seeds, and spices like cumin, smoked paprika, sage, rosemary, and thyme, the plant-centered culinary possibilities are truly endless.10 Each of these foods and seasonings have the power to impart a dynamic flavor profile reminiscent of the taste of your favorite meat dishes.
Incorporate More Alternative Proteins
Perhaps the simplest way to transition to a more sustainable diet is to replace animal protein with plant and fungi protein alternatives! A few examples of common alternative proteins include tempeh, tofu, seitan, fungi-based proteins, and soy- or pea-based products. If you are hesitant about incorporating these alternative proteins into your diet, you can rest assured that the flavor, texture, and nutritional profiles of many alt proteins on the market are comparable to their animal-based counterparts. And thankfully, new innovations in the alt protein space are making them more palatable and appealing.
Take Fy, for example. This incredibly versatile fungi-based protein, born out of the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, has the ability to mimic the mouth-feel and texture of meat and dairy. With its exquisite texture and neutral flavor, Fy takes on any seasoning it is prepared with! It also contains all 20 amino acids, making it a complete protein source. Not to mention, Fy is undeniably better for the planet than most protein sources. In fact, at scale it can be grown using 99% less land, 94% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 99% less water than beef.11 Using a groundbreaking fermentation process that requires very few resources, Fy can be grown virtually anywhere — even in space!
How to Shop for Sustainable Foods
By now, you may be wondering where you should shop to purchase sustainable foods. The answer to this question is: local! Food that has to travel long distances creates more greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, the transportation sector is among the largest contributors–resulting in nearly 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 alone.12 Therefore, by purchasing produce at your local farmers market, buying produce in season, joining a community support agriculture (CSA), or growing your own food in your backyard, not only will you help to fight climate change, but you will also be supporting small farmers.
If you can’t shop locally, it also helps to be aware of where your food comes from and who produces it. More specifically, it is best to choose brands that abide by high standards of environmental and social sustainability. Sustainable food brands often label their food with symbols and certifications that say fair trade, climate neutral certified, USDA organic, and certified vegan. So, the next time you stroll down the grocery aisles, keep an eye out for these symbols.
How to Reduce Food Waste
As you grow accustomed to making plant-forward and sustainable meals, it becomes easy to go overboard on recipe preparations. And while your fridge may be overcrowded with all of your delicious plant-based meals and produce, it’s important to keep food waste in mind. From the wilted greens that never got the chance to shine in the salad you were planning on preparing to the leftovers you forgot to take to work, implementing strategies to reduce the disposal of excess food is crucial for the health of the environment.
The first step to minimizing food waste is to create a grocery list before going to the store and purchase exact amounts of the foods you need, if possible. Once you get to the grocery store, be sure to inspect the produce before putting it into your cart. You want to steer clear of produce that is overly ripe or showing signs of decay to ensure it will last throughout the week. Also, consider buying frozen produce, which has been shown to result in 47% less food waste.13
When you return from grocery shopping, try storing your food using the “First In First Out” method by placing the new food in the back and the old food in the front. This way, the old food items get used first to prevent spoilage. Another great tip is to use your vegetable scraps to make broths that can be used to make beans or soups. Your scraps can also be used to make compost, which can be added back to the soil to improve its nutrient content, increase water retention, and reduce the need for pesticides.
A truly sustainable food system produces food that is nutritious, safe, affordable, cruelty-free, culturally acceptable, and sparing of both natural and human resources. To ensure the global population has access to food that meets these criteria, we need to shift towards more sustainable diets that focus on the consumption of plants and fungi over animal foods. Luckily, there are actions we can implement today that can meet the health and environmental needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Looking for more information on the ideal sustainable diets that meet all of your needs? Check out our blog that dives into the pros and cons of vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian diets.
1. https://www.fao.org/3/I5640E/i5640e.pdf Accessed May 2023
2. https://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/background/sustainable-dietary-guidelines/en/ Accessed May 2023
3. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788–4/fulltext Accessed May 2023
4. https://www.fao.org/3/ca2079en/CA2079EN.pdf Accessed May 2023
5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9024616/ Accessed May 2023
6. https://www.mdpi.com/2071–1050/13/13/7226 Accessed May 2023
11. https://www.naturesfynd.com/fy-protein Accessed May 2023