7 Ways to Eat a Low-Carbon Diet

Forget the low-carb lifestyle. Is it time you went on a low-carbon diet?

We all know that eating more fruits and vegetables, bypassing the chip aisle and shrinking the portions on our plate can improve our health. Now we're also getting a clue on how these and other little changes can improve the planet's health, too.

“With our food choices, we have a tremendous opportunity to reduce the overall greenhouse gases of any given meal,” says Robin Burton, Green Mission Coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region for of Whole Foods Markets.

While the phrase “low-carbon diet” can encompass all the changes we make to our overall lifestyle in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, food may be the best place to start, say Burton and other experts.

The average American creates 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide annually through eating, even more than the 2.2 tons created by driving, and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the food supply chain, according to the non-profit BAMCO Foundation, created by Bon Appétit Management Co. to help educate the public about how they can make more earth-friendly food choices.

In addition to CO2 released through food manufacturing and transportation, two other major greenhouse gases are also associated with food production. Livestock ranches are the largest producers of methane gas, while conventional agriculture methods produce substantial amounts of nitrous oxide, the foundation says.

Cutting down on the amount of greenhouse gases generated by your food choices doesn’t mean cutting out all your favorite treats or completely ignoring your cravings for chocolate or chips. Massive lifestyle changes that are impossible to sustain aren’t necessary for individuals to make a difference, says Maisie Greenawalt, vice president at Bon Appétit and the impetus behind the foundation.

“We really hope that being on something like the low-carbon diet is something people can do for the long run, so they have to be able to stick to it,” Greenawalt says.

7 small diet changes that add up to slash your carbon footprint

Just as taking smaller steps like walking up the stairs instead of riding the elevator can help us lose weight, there are many little things we can do to reduce greenhouse gases — helping to make change can be as simple as passing up cheese on a sandwich. And just like with weight loss, making changes we can live with makes it much more likely that we’ll stick with it.

Try making any or all of these seven changes to reduce your climate change impact.

1. If you buy it, eat it.

Many of us mistakenly believe that discarded food heading to landfills isn’t a big deal because it decomposes quickly. In reality, when landfills are covered over at night, the decomposition process produces large amounts of methane gas, Greenawalt says.

Shopping with a list and avoiding impulse buys at the grocery store are the key first step here. On the other end, save what you don’t eat in one sitting and eat up leftovers before they go bad in the fridge – this includes the contents of restaurant doggy bags.

Finally, If you have organic fruit and vegetable scraps to get rid of, you can start composting with either a bakcyard compost pile or a compost bin.

2. Practice portion control and seek restaurants that do the same.

This is one tip that anyone who has ever sought to lose weight knows well – start with less on your plate and you’ll end up with less on your hips. Turns out, this strategy for trimming the waistline is also key when seeking to reduce waste.

“There are a couple ways of looking at food waste,” Greenawalt says. “It’s definitely a high-carbon item, and no matter how low-carbon a food is, if you’re wasting it, it’s waste. That includes the amount we throw out, and it also means the amount we overconsume. Overconsumption, which has become part of the value proposition in many restaurants, is not good for the planet or our personal health.”

3. Eat local and in season.

This tip isn’t only good for the earth, as reducing "food miles" — the distance your food has to travel to get from farm to you — cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions, but it can also be great for your pocketbook when you decide to pass up exotic tropical fruits flown in from afar in favor of homegrown apples or oranges.

Shopping at farmers’ markets also ensures you’re buying locally grown foods and produce that's in season, and often they offer the best prices for produce. Community-supported agriculture farms, or CSAs, are a growing option for many – under these arrangements, you pay a set fee at the beginning of the growing season and, each week, receive a box of locally grown produce.

If you’re not sure about what foods are grown in your area, check out Eat Well Guide's seasonal food guide, which provides a state-by-state list of native local produce and a calendar showing when each is in season.

Also pay closer attention to the country of origin on the labels of packaged food, meats, fish and other foods that have a label. New COOL (country of origin labeling) requirements for food will help you slash your food miles and your carbon impact.

4. Go meatless and cheese-free more often.

Livestock emits methane and contributes about 18 percent of total greenhouse gases, according to one United Nations report. Locally grown fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains are healthier for both your body and the planet.


A vegan diet is one way to drastically eliminate the amount of greenhouse gases from your food supply. But if that’s not for you, consider cutting back on meat, adding more meat-free meals and becoming more thoughtful in your choices. Stick with the ones you really love and leave behind the ones you can do without.

For someone who eats beef five times a week, for example, just cutting out beef at one meal per week is a 20 percent reduction. Even simpler steps are possible; for example, consider whether you need the cheese on that sandwich or whether you can do without it, Greenawalt says.

Eschewing beef, pork and lamb in favor of less-methane-producing meat sources including chicken can also help make a difference.

5. Don’t buy fresh fish that’s been air freighted.

Frozen seafood transported by ship is a more low-carbon option, Greenawalt says.

The BAMCO foundation estimates that shipping seafood by air generates 10 times as much carbon dioxide as sending frozen fish by ship and five times as much as trucking it over land.

If your home is close to a coast, fresh fresh-caught homegrown seafood is best, Greenawalt says. However, if you live in the middle of the country and you’re eating fresh shellfish or saltwater seafood, you can pretty much guarantee that it was flown in from one of the two coasts.

6. Leave processed and packaged foods off your list.

The more steps there are in the processing, the higher the carbon footprint of a particular food, Greenawalt says.

Eating organic can also be a way to reduce greenhouse gases, Burton says, since fewer fertilizers and pesticides means less nitrous oxide in the air.

Oh, and great news for the chocoholics among us — most chocolate is already made with organic beans, Greenawalt says, largely because growers don’t typically have access to pesticides and other chemicals to spray on the crops.

7. Speaking of packaging … less is more.

Buy bulk food items when possible and find other ways to eliminate or cut back on packaging. In addition to taking up space in landfills, packaging has other carbon-related impacts, Burton says.

“The more packaging we have to produce, the more energy is consumed in production,” she says. “And, the bigger the package is, the fewer that fit on a truck, which means a greater transportation load and more carbon dioxide.”

You've got more package-free options than ever. Bypassing the bagged nuts and canned beans for the bulk aisle is a great way to start, and of course take your own reusable bags to the grocery store or farmers’ market.

Sometimes, it's OK to play with your food

BAMCO has created a fun way to illustrate the impact of your food choices on greenhouse gas emissions. The Low-Carbon Diet Calculator offers consumers a chance to click and drag sample meals and individual menu items into a cast iron skillet, while a thermometer measures the carbon impact in terms of a scale of points, from zero to 7,500.

The higher the point value, the worse your meal is for the environment, so the goal for those seeking to reduce impact is a lower score. Since the ultimate idea is for all of us to incorporate changes that work for our lives, the best way to begin is to calculate a typical meal that you might eat now and start to find lower-carbon alternatives, setting a goal of 25 percent reduction.

Some findings from the calculator:

  • Biggest contrast: Lentil soup barely moves the mercury while grilled beef tenderloin sends it splashing out the top of the thermometer. (This one is kind of fun to watch.)

  • Little changes can add up fast: Adding chicken to a Caesar salad doubles the carbon footprint on your plate, from about 500 points to 1,000.

  • Breakfast can be the most important meal of the day: Tofu scramble – 336; scrambled eggs – 505; omelet with vegetables – 783; omelet with vegetables & cheese – 1,299; omelet with meat and cheese – 1,519.

  • The sweetest thing: The calculator’s dessert tray includes cake, chocolate and two kinds of cookies, all of which fall under 300 carbon points if not under 300 calories.

  • On the side: By all means pass up the fries if you’re worried about your waistline, but don’t do it on the planet’s account. A side order of fries measures in at a measly 122 points, and homemade potato chips are even lower at 75.


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M Day
M Day's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 39 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 10/26/2008

I thought this was a great article! I recently read a news article about how eating meatless might be more important than eating local in terms of environmental damage, but both are clearly important and I'm glad your article covered these as well as many other ways to eat for the best of the planet.

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