11 Tips to Increase Your Health and Reduce Your Environmental Footprint Through Better Food Choices

If you want to increase your health and the health of the planet, you’ll love this guide.

Erica Eller
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Environmental footprint

In this blogpost you will learn why it is important to reduce your environmental footprint.

You’ll learn to do it through better food choices. Choices that are both better for you and for the planet.

In short: if you want to increase your health and the health of the planet, you’ll love this guide.

Can’t wait to begin!

Here is a summary of the 11 Tips to Increase Your Health and Reduce Your Environmental Footprint Through Better Food Choices

  1. Reduce or cut meat and dairy. Meat and dairy are the highest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and biodiversity losses.
  2. Eat low impact foods. Plant-based foods like vegetables, legumes and whole-grains are some of the lowest impact foods.
  3. Eat edible insects. Edible insects are one of the healthiest and most sustainable sources of animal protein.
  4. Eat certain organic foods. Not all organic foods are created equal. Organic legumes and fruits will reduce your environmental footprint, where most whole-grains will not.
  5. Go Zero-waste. Reduce your food waste by only buying what you need and using your meal leftovers. By non-packaged foods or buy foods with refillable packaging.  
  6. Choose Locally Grown Food. Most food is transported 1500-2500 miles before it ends on your plate. Buy local food from farmers markets or garden sales.
  7. Choose Seasonal Food. This way you make sure the food you eat is tasty, nutritious and regional.
  8. Cook your Own Food. By cooking your own food you can make healthier and more sustainable choices and reduce the amount of highly processed foods.
  9. Choose Artisanal Or Heirloom Varietals. This way you increase biodiversity and increase the resilience of our crops.
  10. Eat and Shop in Moderation. Having access to food 24/7 often cause us to overconsume. Ask yourself, am I really hungry?
  11. Share Impactful Knowledge. Share your success stories with your friends and family to increase the impact of your wisdom.
Environmental footprint

Why is it important to reduce your environmental footprint through better food choices?

All your choices impacts the environment either in a positive or negative way.

choice

The impact you’re making on the environment is your environmental footprint.

Your environmental footprint include the level of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land use that it took to produce your food.

Whether you realize it or not, each time you buying food, you’re casting a vote.

A vote on what the farmers should produce and what the corporations should pack and market to you in the supermarket.

vote

If you want to cast a vote for the environment, reducing your environmental food footprint can be an easy first step.

How much do the foods we eat impact our environment?

To answer this question, let’s first consider carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

This area receives a lot of attention lately, due to the 2018 IPCC Special Report on Global Warming.

The report sets a hard deadline of 11 years (until 2030) to keep global temperatures below a 1.5 degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels.

world on fire

Nearly a quarter of the world’s global carbon footprint comes from the food we eat.

Moreover, certain food categories produce higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). For instance, animal products account for 60% of GHGs of all foods produced.

This is why it’s important to make informed choices when it comes to food.

Cow windmill grass

We should also consider that carbon isn’t the only factor that influences our food’s impact on the environment.

A recent study published in Science magazine provides the world’s most comprehensive database on the environmental impacts by food type.

Colorful water

It considers factors such as water use, acidification (PH imbalance), eutrophication (excess nutrient run off), and land use (including deforestation) to assess environmental impact.

Foods that are intense in one category, such as GHGs emissions, also tend to have high impacts in the other categories.

Food Footprint Calculation:

For you that want a fast assessment of a particular food you’ve been eating you can try this handy food environmental impact calculator.

Food calculator

Reversing the food footprint trend

The Eat-Lancet Commission Summary Report links healthy diets with improved lifespans and environmental sustainability.

By changing out eating habits we can actually positively impact the planet’s resilience through our food choices.

It goes on to say that crucial shifts in our food system could make agricultural lands become carbon sinks. A well-designed food system can also improve the planet’s biodiversity.

green log

With these kinds of benefits, why wouldn’t you want to make better food choices?

man changing his mind

Without further ado, here are eleven simple guidelines you can tackle this global dilemma on a daily basis.  

11 Ways to Reduce the Environmental Footprint of your Food

1. Reduce or cut meat and dairy

If you want to lower your food footprint, this strategy is the single best thing you can do.

Based on our current food production system, meat and dairy are outlaws for food sustainability.

In fact, all the top eight foods on the carbon footprint list are animal-based: lamb, beef, cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, tuna and eggs.

meat

Beef provides a mere 18 percent of global consumed calories, while it requires 83 percent of the total land used for agriculture (Guardian).

The impacts of beef production in Latin America are particularly shocking. Cattle ranching has contributed to 70% of rainforest deforestation.

deforestation

This beef actually results in 12 times as many GHGs as beef from cows raised on pastures by eliminating carbon storing forests.

We cannot consider the problems associated with the meat and dairy industry in isolation. As other agricultural products also lead to high carbon emissions and water use and biodiversity losses.

Does this mean you have to cut out all meat and dairy from your diet? No. But it does mean that making a conscious effort to buy meat and dairy from low carbon impact sources can have a huge impact.

No cows

The real problem is how we manage our animals with increased demand based on population growth.

2. Eat low impact foods

Now when you know which foods you can cut out from your diet, it helps to know what foods that actually have a low environmental impact.

This will help you combine powerful nutritional content with low environmental consequences.

Vegetables

According to Organic Authority, these foods include:

Whole grains

Whole grains

Including wheat, barley, oats, rice and buckwheat for their low water use.

Legumes

Legumes and whole grains

Like peas, beans and lentils for their soil enriching qualities.

Leafy greens

Variaties of kale

Including spinach, kale, collards, etc. for their fast growth and nutritional value.

Olives and pomegranates

Pomegranates

For their drought resilience and nutritional value.

3. Eat Edible Insects

Person eating scorpions on a stick
Photo credit: istolethetv, Flickr

Foods with edible insects can also help you get your protein intake, without all the environmental consequences. Unlike cattle and livestock, insects don’t need large tracts of land for cultivation.

They convert the feed they consume into protein with far greater efficiency than conventional animals. Compared with beef, crickets are 12 times as efficient in producing protein.

Edible insects can also reduce the impacts of food waste on the environment, since they can use this wastestream as a food source.

insect infographic

4. Eat Certain Organic Foods

Organic product isle

Did you notice "Certain"?

Sometimes organic crops are actually more resource intensive than conventional crops.

That’s what makes the organic label a complicated issue with regards to reducing your environmental footprint.

EU organic logo

But first, what exactly do we mean by organic?

The classic definition says that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were part of the agricultural or livestock production.

This includes genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), apart from a shortlist of exceptions. Now, let’s explore this question further.

Is organic food better for the environment?

The answer depends on what factors you’re considering, so let’s explore a variety of factors. These findings are from an analysis done by Our World in Data.

Carbon Emissions
agriculture fog

The production of organic legumes (beans and lentils) and fruits generates less GHGs than these foods’ conventional counterparts. The same cannot be said for most grains.

Land use
Sunny field of barley

Many types of organic crops need more land than conventional farms.

Acidification (PH imbalance) and eutrophication (excess nutrients)
Colorful water

Surprisingly, studies have found that organic farms actually have more consequences in these categories than conventional crops.

Biodiversity
Magical forest

Organic production methods tend to protect biodiversity better.

The debate between organic vs. conventional produce has focused on contentious business practices involving GMOs.

These practices include gene patenting, growing GMO crops that withstand high quantities of toxic pesticides and introducing genetic traits that disrupt the broader biodiversity of a region.

Blue cherries

Currently, 60 countries around the world restrict or ban GM crop cultivation.

While GMOs have often been the target of these debates, the practice of genetic modification is not proven to be inherently harmful. From some perspectives, can even become part of the solution to crop resilience.

To sum up, you can actually make greater gains in environmental impact by focusing on the food categories you favor, rather than the production methods themselves, which is why I’ve placed this recommendation fourth on the list.

5. Go Zero-waste

We find a lot of the environmental harm inflicted by the food industry in the waste stream.

It is possible to break down the waste steam into two categories of food and packaging waste.

Here are some strategies to go zero-waste.

Food waste
cookie monster and cookies

I remember how my parents would make me feel guilty about not eating leftovers. They would say the scraps on my plate could feed a poor person living in Africa. In a sense, they were right.

According to the FAO, a third of food produced each year goes into the waste stream. In terms of value, that’s almost a trillion dollars lost on a yearly basis worldwide.

Leftovers

Avoid unnecessary food waste by storing your food properly, freezing extras, and saving leftovers.

Packaging waste

A popular front against plastic packaging has hit the supermarkets. This is because much of plastic packaging is single-use. It’s only used once before getting sent to the landfill where it will take from several decades to several centuries to decompose.

plastic on the beach

By now, a high level of plastics has accumulated in our environment.

Just look at the waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the reports of microplastics that have showed up in 90% of table salt.

salt and grinder

It’s clearly time to reduce the non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials used in food packaging.

Instead of buying food that comes in single-use plastic containers, you can buy from delis or bulk bins that allow you to use your own containers.

mason jar with granola

You can also buy products sold in biodegradable packages, or those sold in durable containers that you can reuse.

Mainstream food producers are starting to test reusable containers that you can return and refill.

Loop häagen-dazs
Photo credit: Loop

Check out Loop, one of the companies doing just that. This is a sign that many more waste-preventing container options will soon be available on the market.

6. Choose Locally Grown Food

Food travels an average of 1500 to 2500 miles to arrive at the table of a consumer.

Along that journey, food needs to be in cooled areas, which requires electricity, and gas-fueled transport.

That’s why a simple way to cut down on the carbon footprint of food is to eat local foods.

So, how local is local? The closer you get to home, the better. Buy food from local farmers’ markets, community gardens, or even the food grown in your own backyard.

Farmers market

If you don’t have these options near you. Then regionally grown food will still cut down on your foot print compared with foods shipped internationally.

7. Choose Seasonal Food

Eating food grown in season ensures that you’re taking advantage of the natural sources of energy already provided by the planet.

Plants and animals that are grown in the heat of the sun automatically reduce carbon emissions.

autumn vegetables

From another perspective, think of how agricultural food products are grown out of season.

They either come from another part of the globe, or they are grown using artificial climate controls for both growing and food storage.

hydroponic salad

The heat needed to create those conditions usually depends on carbon-based heating or cooling methods.

8. Cook your Own Food

Putting in the extra effort and time to create meals from fresh ingredients improves both the nutritional value of your foods and your environmental footprint.

This is because you’re cutting down on the resources needed for transportation and production that processed foods need.

Retro woman cooking

Do you want to take this even one step further?

Then you can apply this same principle in your home by avoiding cooked foods and eating raw foods instead.

This will cut the need for a stovetop or oven requiring fossil fuels.

9. Choose Artisanal or Heirloom Varietals

Whenever you eat conventional foods, you are likely taking part in a long historical trend towards monocultures.

Have you ever seen a commercial farm with vast stretches of land where only a single species of food grows? Then you have also seen what a monoculture looks like.

field of wheat

The problem is that this takes up immense spaces of land where only a few other species can live and it leads to losses in biodiversity.

To put this in perspective, the World Wildlife Fund reports that the world has lost 60 percent of its total biodiversity between 1970 and 2014

With lower levels of biodiversity, our crops become less resistant to storms, drought and disease. All which, are becoming more common due to climate change.

drought

The grocery store showcases biodiversity loss with its limited varietals of commercial crops.

One way to support biodiversity in your food choices is to shop at your farmer’s market.

There you can select local, uncommon strains of fruits, vegetables and grains. These are likely grown from artisanal or heirloom seed stocks.

different varieties of beans

These seeds can actually improve our long term resilience by diversifying the genetic makeup of the plant-based foods we eat.

Increasing biodiversity improves the health of the surrounding ecosystem.

10. Eat and Shop in Moderation

Let’s face it, many of us living in industrialized nations have access to so much food that there is no limit on how much we eat.

Our own individual diets can run the risk of being resource intensive.

Man with stomach ache

Try to cut back and remember that you don’t need to supersize everything.

11. Share Impactful Knowledge

Finally, remember that no man (or woman) is an island.

If you want to make a strong impact on the environment, you’ll have to help educate your friends and family.

Chipmunks whispering

By sharing what you know and building awareness allows your own benefits to multiply through word of mouth.

Let’s sum up

We have many ways within our own control to reduce our environmental footprint.

If we had to sum it up in a nice principle it would go something like this:

Eat primarily home-cooked, seasonal, local plant-based foods with low environmental impact and share your beautiful creations with your friends and family.

Final Thoughts on the Footprint of Food

We are all part of the food system, whether we grow our own tomatoes or eat potato chips from the corner store.

It’s important to remember that we live in a world where harmful food choices are often the most convenient options.

We may also count ourselves lucky to even have these options. So, if you have plenty of food choices available, remember to use them wisely.

"With great power comes great responsibility" - Voltaire  
spiderman

Which of the above steps will you implement?

Let me know in the comments below :)


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