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You Can Have a More Sustainable Diet by Swapping One Item at a Time

chicken breast

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Key Takeaways

  • Swapping one item for a more eco-friendly alternative in your overall diet can help reducing your carbon footprint.
  • Beef has the highest environmental impact among other commonly consumed foods.
  • Plant-based alternatives aren't always sustainable. Asparagus and almonds, for example, require lots of water.

You don’t always have to switch to a plant-based diet to eat more sustainably. Swapping just one food item—especially if it’s a beef product—can make a significant impact on your carbon footprint, according to a new study.

Americans who eat beef could cut their diets’ carbon footprint by as much as 48% by just replacing one food serving per day with a more eco-friendly alternative, the researchers wrote.

The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, follows a large-scale project by the researchers to identify the carbon footprint of American diets.

In a survey of almost 17,000 Americans, around 20% of respondents reported eating at least one serving of beef per day. Beef alone accounted for over 40% of environmental impact among other foods, according to Diego Rose, PhD, MPH, lead author of the study and a professor of nutrition and food security at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

“If there was a way to get the high carbon footprint intakes down to the median, we could actually make significant savings in the overall carbon footprint of the U.S. diets,” Rose told Verywell.

The researchers ranked the food items by the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and water scarcity footprint (a measure of irrigated water compared with the regional water scarcity level). They found that poultry and pork were more “planet-friendly” than beef since cattle production generates eight to 10 times more greenhouse gas than poultry production.

Beef uses more land and freshwater and generates more emissions per unit of protein than any other common food item, according to the World Resources Institute.

As cows digest their food, they release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Chickens may also release a small amount of methane, but not on the same scale. Some cattle farmers are creating high-fiber diets for their cows in order to cut down methane emissions, while others are using regenerative farming practices to reduce the impact of beef production on the land.

Rose said that sustainable swaps are still essential despite these efforts.

“The volume of consumption of beef in this country is so great that we can’t produce enough beef sustainably to meet that level of consumption. So somewhere along the way we’re going to need to cut back on it,” he said.

It also helps to find substitutions for vegetables that require lots of water or are grown in places where water is scarce. For instance, almonds and asparagus are primarily grown in California, a state that regularly experiences droughts exacerbated by climate change. Researchers found that swapping asparagus with peas can reduce the footprint by around 48%, while replacing almonds with peanuts can decrease the footprint by over 30%.

Make Your Own Planet-Friendly Swaps

If you want to adopt sustainable eating habits, experts say it’s important not to get overwhelmed.

“Beginning an environmental nutrition journey can be a most exciting, meaningful adventure,” Robin R. Roach, MPH, EdD, RDN, director of the Environmental Nutrition program at the University of Memphis, told Verywell.

Roach said adopting environmentally-responsible food practices doesn’t have to mean giving up meat entirely. As the study suggested, this could mean ordering a chicken burger instead of a beef burger for dinner.

“The plethora of suggestions for what you need to do and not do can knock you down before you get started. Don’t be overwhelmed. If you decide to serve your family a plant-based meal once a month—that’s an extremely important decision on many levels,” she said.

Choosing plant-based alternatives for a portion of your diet does make a difference in terms of lowering carbon footprints.

Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and associate nutrition professor at the University of Hawaii, told Verywell that plant-based protein sources can make for a good swap for meat products.

“For example, have some beans rather than a steak,” Banna said, adding that plant-based protein often contains plenty of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals without much saturated fat.

However, Banna noted that not every environmentally-friendly swap is automatically healthier. For example, choosing skinless chicken over beef might help reduce saturated fat intake, but poultry generally has less iron than beef.

The Future of Sustainable Nutrition

Sustainable nutrition is a relatively new trend. The 2019 EAT-Lancet was one of the first to outline an evidence-based framework for a healthy and environmentally-friendly diet.

More research and policy changes are needed to create sustainable guidelines specific to different demographics.

“A universal recommendation to give up meat would not make sense, as sustainable diets look different according to circumstances,” Banna said. “For example, reducing animal source foods in high-income countries may be beneficial, but maybe not in low-income countries where there is undernutrition.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainable eating. Rose said that his team’s study may encourage people to evaluate their individual eating habits and see where they can make meaningful swaps.

“Diet is one of those things that you can just do yourself. You can just start making changes,” Rose said. “Maybe as we talk more and more about this, it will become part of the social norm to think about what we put in our mouth not just in terms of how it tastes or how it nourishes us but also how friendly it is to the planet.”

What This Means For You

If you are thinking about making sustainable dietary swaps, remember that you don’t have to change all of your eating habits overnight. Small changes can make a big impact. As a starting point, this quiz from the New York Times can help show you the carbon footprint of your current dietary habits.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rose D, Willits-Smith AM, Heller MC. Single-item substitutions can substantially reduce the carbon and water scarcity footprints of US diets. Am J Clin Nutr. Published online January 13, 2022. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab338

  2. World Resources Institute. Shifting diets for a sustainable food future.

  3. Kovacs B, Miller L, Heller MC, Rose D. The carbon footprint of dietary guidelines around the world: a seven country modeling studyNutr J. 2021;20(1):15. doi:10.1186/s12937-021-00669-6

  4. EAT-Lancet Commission. EAT-Lancet commission summary report.