Our diets play a significant role in our carbon footprints and overall well-being. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to eat more sustainably without giving up everything you love to eat. This article covers how and why to eat more sustainably.

For the record, I have nothing against eating vegan. In fact, I envy the courage and dedication of those that do it, and applaud what they are doing for the environment. However, a vegan diet just isn’t in the cards for me; partly because I believe responsibly sourced animal protein — like legally harvested wild fish and game — is a crucial food source, and partly because I haven’t found the strength to give up eggs, cheese and the occasional hunk of red meat.

I know I’m not alone in this — not even close. But sustainable eating isn’t a zero-sum game. So if you’re not ready for a vegan diet, not to worry! There are plenty of other ways to eat more sustainably.

#1 – Eat Locally

Why: Eating locally does several things at once. It isn’t just about reducing food-based transportation emissions, although that’s a big part of it. It also reduces plastic packaging waste, supports local farmers who take care of the land, and invests money in your community instead of Big Ag.

Plus, the food is just fresher and tastier. Compare a locally grown tomato with one blasted with pesticides, picked early, artificially ripened, shipped across the country and handled by 14 different people before landing in your grocery cart. I dare you.

How: Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), frequent your local farmers markets, visit farms and farm stands, join a U-Pick, eat at restaurants that source local foods, look for “locally grown” labels at the grocery store. If you’re in Washington state like me, use the Tilth Alliance Farm Guide and Eat Local First Food Finder to discover new ways to eat locally.

#2 – Harvest Your Own Food

ripen tomatoes eat more sustainably
Homegrown tomatoes from the authors garden.

Why: What’s better than local? How about grown-30-feet-away local or caught-it-myself local! Zero packaging, limited transpiration emissions and way more control over what goes into your food. Honestly, you probably won’t be able to live solely off of homegrown produce and wild game. But it’s very possible to replace a meaningful portion of your diet with wild and hyperlocal food. (Heads up: You just might learn a thing or two about life in the process.)

How: Start or expand your veggie garden. Plant fruit trees. Raise chickens or ducks for fresh eggs. Legally harvest wild food by hunting, fishing and foraging.

As far as gardening goes (the most likely option), here’s the basic process:

  1. Just get started. Put a seed in some soil and water it.
  2. Make mistakes.
  3. Learn from those mistakes.
  4. Repeat endlessly.

Visit The Beer Garden to learn from some of my mistakes as a home veggie grower.

#3 – Eat More Plants

Why: For the most part, plant-based foods have a far smaller carbon footprint than animal based ones (check it out, it’s true). Why? Because animals are basically just wasteful, delicious middlemen for nutrients we can get directly from plants. For example, cows transfer just 3% of the calories and protein from their feed into calories and protein in beef. The other 97% is waste (aka methane emissions and caca).

See how eating a greater variety of plants benefits the biosphere.

How: First, refer to tips #1 and #2, especially joining a CSA and growing your own veggies. Use beans instead of beef on Taco Tuesday. Go one night a week without meat. Try some of the plant-based meat alternatives from Impossible Foods and Beyond Beef. Hell, just dip your toe in the water with an Impossible Burger from Burger King.

Warning: Plants contain vitamins and minerals essential to human health.

Your fur babies can eat more sustainably, too! Check out these pet products in the Emeraldology Shop!

#4 – Just Say No… To Beef

eat more sustainably
Protein feed-to-food efficiencies in the US. Image source.

Why: Eating less beef is perhaps the most effective way to eat more sustainably. That stat about cows turning plant protein into meat protein at just 3% efficiency? Not a joke. The handy-dandy chart above breaks it down. Not only do cows require more resources, they waste more, too.

To put that 3% in context, Shaquille O’Neal (a notoriously poor-shooting NBA player) made just one three-pointer in 22 attempts during his NBA career for a 4.5% three-point shooting percentage. He could actually un-retire, miss 11 more three-pointers and still be more efficient than beef.

See 6 Things More Efficient Than Getting Protein From Cows.

How: Eat literally anything besides beef. The most efficient animal protein sources, according to Our World in Data, are listed below alongside their greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalents) per kilogram of food product:

  1. Wild caught fish – 3.0
  2. Eggs – 4.5
  3. Farmed fish – 5.0
  4. Poultry meat – 6.0
  5. Pig meat – 7.0
  6. Farmed prawns – 12.0
  7. Beef (dairy herd) – 21.0
  8. Cheese – 21.0
  9. Lamb and mutton – 24.0
  10. Beef (beef herd) – 60.0

Just replacing beef with chicken is 10 times more efficient in terms of GHG emissions. And the switch from beef to wild caught fish is 20 times more efficient.

Ditching beef alone is an achievement. Everything else is splitting hairs.

#5 – Opt for Organic

Why: Among other things, certified organic means Roundup-free. Bayer (proud new owner of Monsanto) recently settled tens of thousands of claims that its herbicide Roundup causes cancer to the tune of $10 billion dollars. Not only does Roundup (more specifically its key ingredient glyphosate) present a clear risk to human health, its use contributes to monoculture farming, biodiversity loss, and land degradation. Several countries have banned the use of glyphosate while in the US Environmental Protection Agency (despite flagging it as a potential carcinogen in 1983) has actually raised the legal allowable threshold.

eat more sustainably
Certified USDA Organic Seal.

As noted in The Guardian, “Research shows that the percentage of the US population with detectable levels of glyphosate in their bodies increased from 12% in the mid-1970s to 70% by 2014.”

However, A recent study found that an organic diet can reduce the presence of glyphosate in the human body by 70% in just six days. Easy come, easy go, I guess.

How: The only surefire ways to avoid Roundup is to grow your own food (without using Roundup) and to buy foods bearing the USDA Organic seal or another meaningful organic certification.

#6 – Avoid Plastic Packaging

Why: Most plastics are petroleum-based which means they contribute carbon emissions and have no suitable, let alone beneficial, end-life. Plastic recycling, according to an NPR investigation, does more to give cover to Big Oil’s reputation than it does to actually recycle plastic. Less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled.

How: Follow the tips above, especially eating locally, growing and harvesting your own food, and eating more plants. Bring your own containers and bags to the grocery store (as possible) and buy in bulk. Carry a reusable water bottle and coffee mug to use instead of single-use cups. When you get takeout, ask the restaurant not to pack things you don’t need like plastic utensils and sauce packets.

Choose reusable, compostable and non-plastic food packaging whenever possible!

#7 – Avoid Food Waste

Why: All food, plant- and animal-based, takes valuable resources to produce. The worst thing we can do is waste it. Take it from the rich, sultry voice of Sir David Attenborough :

How: Think critically about “Best If Used By” and “Expiration” dates (start with this USDA resource). (Spoiler: “Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.”)

Buy food more frequently and in smaller quantities. Donate the food you aren’t going to eat. Make a point to eat and use leftovers. Share excess perishables with your friends and neighbors.

Get creative: You can throw just about anything in scrambled eggs or salad just to make use of it. Tweak recipes to make use of ingredients you already have on hand. Can, pickle or freeze perishable produce to extend its life.

Compost and recycle when possible! We’ve all let a jar of pasta sauce moldy get in the fridge or bit into a bad piece of fruit. It happens. Salvage what you can by composting the food matter and properly recycling glass, cardboard and aluminum. (Clean and dry people, clean and dry.)

Find new ways to eat more sustainably

This list isn’t the be-all-end all of ways to eat more sustainably, but it’s a start. Your best bet is try a smorgasbord of methods and stick with the ones that suit you.

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Feature photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash.