Today, eating healthier benefits not only our personal well-being but that of our local environments, as well.

Think back: remember your New Year’s resolutions? One of them was probably to eat healthier. But, chances are, those promises you made to yourself are becoming a distant memory because studies show that most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by February.

That’s why today I’d like to revisit how and what we eat, and look at some new takes on diets. For example, a new study has found that just 12% of Americans consume half of all the beef eaten in the U.S., contributing to adverse environmental and health impacts. But another recent study shows that making only one, small diet change—choosing chicken instead of beef, for instance, or selecting plant milk instead of cow’s milk—could significantly curb carbon emissions and increase the healthfulness of your diet.

Other new research is showing that a reduction in carbon emissions and other environmental benefits—such as opening up agricultural lands to reforestation, which benefits biodiversity and creates carbon sinks—could be achieved by replacing dietary fats from palm oil, soy and other agricultural crops with fats created synthetically by biological or chemical processes. And “blue foods”—those that come from the ocean or freshwater environments—have tremendous potential to help address several global challenges.


Just 12% of Americans eat half of all the beef consumed in the U.S. on a given day. That’s not good for our health or our environment.

Consuming beef and creating environmental and health impacts

A new study that uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—which tracked the meals of more than 10,000 adults over a 24-hour period—and that was published in the journal Nutrients in August 2023 has found that just 12% of Americans are responsible for eating half of all beef consumed in the nation on a given day. Those 12%—most likely to be men or people between the ages of 50 and 65—eat what’s called a “disproportionate amount” of beef, a distinction based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest four ounces per day of eggs, meat and poultry combined for those consuming 2,200 calories per day.

The global food system emits 17 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year, equivalent to a third of all planet-warming gases produced by human activity. The beef industry contributes heavily to that, producing eight to 10 times more emissions than chicken and over 50 times more than beans.

The researchers focused on beef because of its impact on the environment and its high saturated fat content, which is not good for our health. Surprised that such a small percentage of people account for such an outsized consumption of beef, the scientists say that it’s yet to be determined whether their findings are encouraging for sustainability advocates. On one hand, if it’s only 12% of Americans who are eating half the beef, big gains could be made if we get those 12% on board. On the other hand, those 12% may be the most resistant to change.


Curbing carbon emissions and eating healthier may both start at the dinner table. Swapping beef for chicken in your tacos is a good start.

Importantly, the study also found that those who were not disproportionate beef consumers were more likely to have looked up the USDA’s MyPlate food guidance system. This might indicate that exposure to dietary guidelines can be an effective tool in changing eating behaviors, but it could also be true that those who were aware of healthy or sustainable eating practices were also more likely to be aware of dietary guideline tools.

Of the beef consumed on a given day, almost a third came from cuts such as brisket or steak. But six of the top 10 sources were mixed dishes, such as burgers, burritos, meatloaf, spaghetti with meat sauce or tacos. And that’s good news, because some of these foods may offer an easy opportunity for disproportionate beef eaters to alter their dietary habits. For example, if you’re ordering a burrito, you could just as easily ask for chicken instead of beef.

Those below the age of 29 and above the age of 66 were least likely to eat large amounts of beef. This could be an indication that the younger generation might be more interested in mitigating the effects of climate change.


Younger people tend to eschew beef; it could be that the younger generation is more interested in mitigating the effects of climate change.

This study could help consumer groups and government agencies craft educational messaging around the negative environmental and health impacts of beef consumption and target those eating disproportionate amounts of beef. After all, honing messaging around the environmental impact of beef production is crucial at a time when climate change awareness is higher than ever.

Swapping dietary items to cut carbon emissions and improve health

There’s more good news for the climate on the diet front.

According to a new study from researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, that was published in the journal Nature Food in October 2023, making simple substitutions—such as switching from beef to chicken or drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk—could reduce the average American’s carbon footprint from food by 35%, while also boosting diet quality by between 4% to 10%.


Choosing plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk could reduce the average American’s carbon footprint from food by more than 30%, while also boosting diet quality by almost 10%.

Food production accounts for 25% to 33% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, with beef production being a primary contributor. But the Tulane University study shows that cutting dietary carbon emissions is accessible and doesn’t have to be a whole lifestyle change. It can be as simple as ordering a chicken burrito instead of a beef burrito when you go out to eat. When you’re at the grocery store, say the scientists, move your hand one foot over to grab almond or soy milk instead of cow’s milk. That one, small change can have a significant impact.

The study, which analyzed diet data from more than 7,700 Americans, identified commonly eaten foods with the highest climate impact and simulated replacing them with nutritionally similar, lower-emission options. For instance, substitutes included swapping a beef burger for a turkey burger—not replacing your steak with a tofu hotdog.

The largest projected reductions in emissions were seen in mixed dishes: burritos, pastas and similar popular dishes where it’s easy to substitute a lower-impact protein instead of beef. And whereas it may be more effective for an adult to focus on protein swaps, say the scientists, switching children to plant-based milk can have a “meaningful impact on the carbon footprint” and help start positive habits earlier.


Having your children drink plant-based milk can help start healthier habits and instill environmental awareness earlier.

Identifying healthy alternatives to high-carbon foods was not the intent of the study, yet swapping to lower carbon foods showed “sizable improvements in how healthy the diets were.”

While these substitutes are not intended as a cure-all for climate objectives or personal health goals, they are evidence that small changes can have a large impact.

Chewing our way out of the climate crisis

Agriculture is one of the hardest human activities to decarbonize; people must eat, but the land-use practices associated with growing crops account for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. But in a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability in November 2023, a team of scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and other institutions assessed the potential for wide-scale synthetic production of dietary fats through biological and chemical processes, eliminating farms altogether.


The land-use practices associated with agriculture and growing crops are responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, which play a major role in climate change.

The raw materials for this method are the same as those used by plants: carbon dioxide in the air and hydrogen in water. Such “food without the farm” could avoid enormous quantities of climate-warming emissions while also safeguarding biodiverse lands that might otherwise be cleared for farms.

The scientists highlight other environmental and societal benefits of farm-free food in their paper, including a reduction in water use and watershed pollution, local control over food production, diminished risk of weather-related food shortages, and less need for low-paying and physically demanding agricultural labor.

Another plus would be the possibility of returning existing farmlands to a natural state, which could enhance biodiversity and build up natural carbon sinks. And, at whatever scale, synthesizing food will alleviate competition between agriculture and natural ecosystems, thereby avoiding the many environmental costs of farming.


According to World Wildlife Fund, large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations. This clearing has destroyed critical habitat for many endangered species—including elephants, rhinos and tigers.

An example would be the practice of razing tropical rain forests to create space for palm oil plantations. Cookies, crackers, snack chips and a lot of other food products are made with dietary fats coming from this source. Almost no one would notice if the oil used to bake their cookies came from a food refinery up the road instead of a plantation in Indonesia.

The authors of the paper said they focused much of their attention on fats because they are the simplest nutrients to synthesize thermochemically, pointing to established, large-scale soap-making and polymer chemistry techniques.

The researchers estimated that agriculturally derived fats correspond to roughly one to three grams of emitted carbon dioxide per 1,000 calories, whereas molecularly identical fats synthesized from natural gas feedstock using available electricity would produce less than a gram of CO2 equivalent emissions, and nearly zero emissions if using carbon captured from the air and non-emitting sources of electricity.


Most people probably aren’t aware of the kinds of fats already found in store-bought cookies. So, a good place to use synthetic fats would be in processed foods.

But a big question is: will people accept food created in this manner? Food is a tougher problem than electricity; few people care where the electrons in their wall sockets originate, but many care a lot about where their food comes from.

Thus, processed foods are a good use for synthetic fats. People may be less concerned about what kind of fat is in a store-bought cookie or piecrust because they don’t know what’s in there now, say the scientists.

Savoring foods from freshwater and ocean sources

Blue foods have tremendous potential to help address several global challenges. By promoting the consumption of more of them in our diets, nations could get a boost on efforts to lower disease risk, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, reduce nutritional deficits and ensure resilience in the face of climate change. So says the team of experts at Blue Food Assessment, an international collaboration of scientists that focuses on the role of aquatic foods in global food systems.


Blue foods, such as fish, have great potential for helping to address several global environmental and food challenges.

In a paper published in the science journal Nature in February 2023, the authors tease out the global-scale benefits of adding more blue foods to the world’s diets. Even though people across the globe now depend on and enjoy seafood, the potential for blue foods to benefit the environment and people remains underappreciated, they state.

Aquatic foods are rich in many essential nutrients, particularly vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, deficiencies of which are relatively high globally, especially in African and South American nations. Increasing the intake of blue foods in those areas could diminish malnutrition; particularly for vulnerable populations, such as elders, women of childbearing age, pregnant women and young children.

Meanwhile, a high incidence of cardiovascular disease—a condition associated with excessive red-meat consumption—is mostly found in the rich, developed countries in Europe and North America. Promoting more freshwater or marine seafood in these nations could displace some processed and red-meat consumption, and lower the rates and risks of developing heart disease.


Increasing the consumption of blue foods in some African nations could diminish malnutrition because they are rich in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

As aquatic food production exerts relatively lower environmental pressures than terrestrial meat production, a shift toward more blue foods could lower the toll that producing terrestrial livestock (particularly ruminants, such as cows, goats and sheep) takes on the Earth. Carefully developed aquaculture, mariculture (the cultivation of marine organisms in their natural environment) and fishing also present opportunities for employment and can ensure the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, according to the researchers.

With thoughtful implementation of blue food policies that lower the barriers to blue food access and production, countries would gain multiple benefits simultaneously, resulting in healthier people and a sustainable food system, as well as a better ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Of course, not all countries will benefit to a uniform degree. The role blue foods play will differ greatly from one country and local setting to another. The goal is for policymakers to fully understand the diverse contributions that blue foods can make, while considering the trade-offs that need to be negotiated to make the most of the opportunities that blue foods provide.


In the face of climate change, how we produce and eat foods matters greatly.

To help in that endeavor, the Blue Food Assessment team offers an online tool, where users can see the relevance of policy objectives around the world in the realms of heart disease, nutrition, environment and climate resilience. By further customizing the different parameters in the online tool, decision-makers can explore the blue food policies that are most relevant for their national setting and that can overcome existing environmental and nutritional challenges.

Eating better, easily swapping and growing more sustainably

These studies make it clear that there are many possibilities for eating healthier while simultaneously bettering our environment, improving our lives on two fronts.

So, next time you’re ordering out or eating in, trade that beef for chicken, go for the blue foods and look for treats that just might contain fats without farms.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,