A few years ago, during a long drive from San Diego to Davis, I decided to go vegan cold turkey. I was driving toward my alma mater, where I was planning to study environmental science; the closer I got, the harder I found it to escape the feeling that I would be hypocrite if I did anything else, given the staggering environmental impact of a meat-based diet.
Indeed, according to the University of California, a vegan diet does have a much lower carbon footprint than the average American diet. But you don’t have to make such a drastic change if you want to limit the environmental impact of what you eat: A new study from UCLA published in the journal Nutrients suggests that adopting a so-called “Mediterranean diet” can reduce your carbon emissions significantly, if not quite to the same level as a vegan diet—but it can even be more impactful than living like a “climatarian” (i.e., someone who shops locally, seasonally, and buys fresh food).
In other words, you can make a change for the good of the planet without rethinking your entire lifestyle. Here’s how to do it.
How much does what you put on your plate affect climate change?
According to the UCLA study, 26% percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions comes from food production and consumption. To put that into context, all the vehicles in the U.S. make up only about 22% of our emissions, according to the EPA.
So the choices we make when deciding what to eat really can have an impact—if all of the 80% of Americans who eat the standard American diet shifted their habits to eat fewer animal products, even if just a few times a week, the difference could be significant. According to the study, all of those people changed to a more climate-friendly diet—admittedly a tall order—the climate impact would be roughly the same as driving 1.34 trillion fewer miles a day.
Comparing the standard daily American diet with a Mediterranean diet, the study found that the carbon cost of the former is the equivalent of driving 6.5–20 miles per day, versus 5.4 miles for the latter—a reduction of between 17 percent and 73 percent.
How can I reduce my carbon footprint with my food choices?
To make the biggest impact on your carbon footprint with the smallest effort, simply eat less beef and lamb. You don’t need to eliminate them from your diet entirely—any reduction in your daily intake of beef or lamb will make a significant dent in the climate cost of what you eat, as it has a 50% higher “carbon cost.”
Red meat has a large carbon foot print because of the vast amount of land and water necessary to raise the animals, not to mention the methane they release when they burp and fart. According to research from the UC Davis team, a serving of beef emits about 330 grams of carbon, comparable to driving a car about three miles.
Here is how a serving of other foods fared in the study:
- A serving of chicken is 52 grams of carbon, equivalent to driving a car about half a mile.
- Fish is 40 grams, or about 0.36 miles of driving.
- Veggies 14 grams, or about 0.13 miles.
- Lentils equal 2 grams, or about 0.02 miles (about 100 feet).
As you can see red meat has an outsized impact on emissions compared to other foods. Even eating pork would reduce your emissions over three times compared to beef, and over four times compared to lamb, according to a report from the Environmental Working Group (page 19).
How to adopt a climate-friendly diet
If you think following a specific diet will make it easier to eat with the climate in mind, consider the Mediterranean diet. Already popular for its health benefits, this diet has plenty to offer in terms of variety without including red meats.
Here is an overview of what following a Mediterranean diet looks like, from Lifehacker’s senior health editor Beth Skwarecki. And according to Healthline, here is the variety of food included:
- Vegetables: tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips.
- Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches.
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters: almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almond butter, peanut butter.
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, pulses, peanuts, chickpeas.
- Whole grains: oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat bread and pasta.
- Fish and seafood: salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels.
- Poultry: chicken, duck, turkey.
- Eggs: chicken, quail, and duck eggs.
- Dairy: cheese, yogurt, milk.
- Herbs and spices: garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper.
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados, and avocado oil.
This diet is perfect if you want to reduce your emissions without overhauling your entire lifestyle—and while eating locally and seasonally is great, the best part is that if that stresses you out, you can still eat more environmentally consciously with a Mediterranean diet.
- Senior health care planning is key to avoid financial ruin
- State unveils plan to protect kids by strengthening families
- Layoffs: From Unemployment Benefits to Health Insurance, the Steps to Take ASAP
- A clinic is coming to a health care desert in this Fort Worth neighborhood
- Minnesota lawmakers plan to solidify court’s rejection of abortion restrictions, limit state data reporting