Tips to make your eating habits more sustainable

Now that we have been focusing on sustainability on climate and consuming habits, The Lab's blog this week moves to sustainable food habits. What we will go through today are practices that support a more environmentally and socially responsible food system. Sustainable eating is an on-demand interest to protect the environment and our communities from the potentially damaging effects of agriculture, such as soil erosion and the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Adopting even one seemingly small and simple sustainable food habit can make a huge difference in promoting a more sustainable food system.

“Choosing a better, more sustainable diet is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment,” Michael Clark, PhD, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

In building a healthier plate that focuses less on red meat and more on plants, you can help reduce your carbon footprint. Below are some sustainable food habits you can adopt today.

1. Favor a plant-based diet. When it comes to eating for environmental health, the first thing that comes to our mind is to choose plant-based over animal-based foods. And if you’re not ready to completely cut down your favorites like burgers, reducing your intake of red meat is a direction to move towards more sustainable eating habits. Large-scale modeling has shown that cutting back on meat and dairy by half could achieve up to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Focusing on including more plant foods than animal foods in your diet can have a significant impact on the environment. The production of animal meat and dairy each year takes a lot of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed, and water, which accounts for 51 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2009 report in World Watch Institute Magazine. Plant foods, such as vegetables, rice, beans and tofu, have a much lower environmental impact.

Plant foods like beans, peas, and lentils are some of the most healthful foods around and can easily substitute for animal protein, according to the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health.

2. Choose unprocessed, nutritious whole grains over refined ones. Cereals and grains are scoring high when it comes to health and environmental benefits — as long as they are minimally processed and whole. Furthermore, they offer way more benefits to our bodies than refined grains and considered valuable nutrients. In addition to fiber, whole grains contain B vitamins, minerals, and protein, as well as compounds that play as antioxidants helping the body prevent disease.

3. Go organic. Yes, as much as you can. The renowned fact is that organic products contain fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers, organically grown and raised products have less impact on the environment. When applied to animal products like dairy, organic means that no antibiotics or synthetic hormones are fed to the animals.

4. Local eating. The meaning of consuming products locally can significantly reduce the number of miles that food travels, which lessens the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Eating locally can also help secure jobs for farmers, local markets, cooperatives and such.

5. More mushrooms to the diets. Why not? Mushrooms have been cultivated for centuries for their flavor and nutritional value, and a study published by WebMD about Health Benefits of mushrooms found that adding just one serving of mushrooms to a meal significantly increases the fiber and several micronutrients that we often don't get enough of, such as vitamin D and potassium. As for their environmental impact, mushrooms are noted for their climate-friendly ability to absorb carbon — in other words, they may help reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. They rank among the top 10 food groups in the aforementioned report from the WWF for Nature and Knorr.

6. Last but not least, back to the topic we have repeatedly discussed - Reduce waste. More food than any other single material fills landfills and incinerators, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which recorded more than 36 million tons of food waste in 2012. Rotting food is a major source of methane, one of the greenhouse gases associated with global warming. In addition, 13 percent of greenhouse gases are attributed to growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food. Adopt a no-waste mindset by planning weekly menus and buying only as much food as you know your family will eat. When it is too much, avoid spoiling by freezing, drying or incorporating foods into stock, soups and casseroles. Choose whole foods over processed when you can, as packaged items not only take more energy to produce, they contribute to packaging waste as well.

We hope that these tips can give you a better ideas on where and how to start making our eating habits impact positively on our health as well as the environment. Stay tune with The Lab weekly posts for more update!

Read more:

10 tips help you eat more sustainably by the WWF organization.

5 tips for sustainable eating by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Sustainable Eating by Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.