Making simple swaps in your diet can benefit both your health and the environment by curbing carbon emissions.
Recent findings published in the journal Nature Food suggest that easy substitutions like switching from beef to chicken or opting for plant-based milk over cow’s milk can reduce the average American’s carbon footprint from food by 35%.
These changes can also enhance diet quality by 4-10%. These findings highlight the potential of a “small changes” approach to encourage more people to adopt climate-friendly eating habits.
Food production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 25-33% of the nation’s total. Among the culprits, beef production stands out as a primary contributor to these emissions.
The Impact of Small Changes
According to senior author Diego Rose, the nutrition program director at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, reducing dietary carbon emissions doesn’t require a complete overhaul of your lifestyle.
It can be as straightforward as choosing a chicken burrito over a beef one when dining out or selecting soy or almond milk instead of cow’s milk at the grocery store. These small adjustments can have a substantial impact.
The Study’s Approach
For this study, researchers examined the dietary data of over 7,700 Americans.
They identified commonly consumed foods with the highest climate impact and simulated the replacement of these items with nutritionally similar options that had lower emissions.
Lead author Anna Grummon, an assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University, clarified that the substitutes sought were as similar as possible to the original foods.
The study focused on feasible swaps, like replacing a beef burger with a turkey burger, rather than more radical changes, such as substituting steak with a tofu hotdog.
The most significant reductions in emissions were observed in mixed dishes like burritos and pasta, where it was easy to replace beef with a lower-impact protein source.
The study expanded on previous research by incorporating dietary data for children.
While adults may benefit from protein swaps, Grummon emphasized that switching children to plant-based milk options can meaningfully reduce the carbon footprint and cultivate positive dietary habits from an early age.
Although the study did not originally intend to identify healthier alternatives to high-carbon foods, it found that substituting lower carbon foods led to substantial improvements in the overall healthiness of diets.
A Win-Win Situation
While these dietary substitutions are not a comprehensive solution for climate change or personal health goals, they demonstrate that small changes can yield significant results.
There’s an overlap between sustainable diets and healthy diets, and as Grummon points out, changing just one ingredient or making one swap can be a win-win, resulting in meaningful improvements in both climate outcomes and the nutritional quality of our diets.
The study involved researchers from Stanford University and Harvard University, and it builds upon the growing body of evidence showing that even minor dietary adjustments can contribute to a healthier planet and healthier individuals.
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For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies about the connection between potatoes and high blood pressure, and results showing why turmeric is a health game-changer.
The research findings can be found in the journal Nature Food.
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