You’ve heard of the plant-based diet…but have you considered a planet-based diet? The current way Earth’s population consumes its food is not doing us any favors – and is a detriment to the planet’s health. Forests are being cleared to make room for cattle rearing. Oceans are overfished. One-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food. It’s time to recalibrate our food systems.
We’ve reached the precarious point where it is no longer hyperbole or hypothetical to say the planet is in peril. Faced with such an overwhelming and omniscient predicament, what can we do in our daily lives to move the needle in the right direction? Like recycling and reducing water usage, eating a planet-based diet starts at home, this time at your dining table.
Whether you’re packing kids’ lunches, planning a holiday dinner or simply outlining the family menu for the week, consider incorporating these planet-based, sustainable dietary behaviors and shifts in perspective.
1. Shop for More Sustainable Ingredients
Get to know your food’s origins. Where was it farmed or fished? How far did it travel to get to your local grocery store? How was it grown? Food produced sustainably does not degrade and pollute the land and doesn’t harm wildlife and their habitats. These are products that are also free of excessive fertilizer and pesticides. So how do you know if you’re selecting sustainable? Look for science-based certification labels and learn what labels mean.
2. Balance Your Plate
Meat and dairy are expensive, and they require a huge amount of space and water to raise the animals necessary for these current diet staples (the livestock industry, on its own, is responsible for nearly 15 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions). We’re not suggesting that every human on Earth become a vegan or vegetarian overnight – these animal proteins provide crucial nutrients – but as with most issues, it’s not about a binary solution. The answer lies instead in the gray in-between area: balance vs. elimination. Support sustainable agriculture by increasing your fruit and vegetable intake to complement the amount of meat, fish, eggs and dairy in your diet, instead of paling in comparison. Swap out lentils for beef in sloppy Joe’s, stuff acorn squash with brown rice and roasted veggies, or serve black-bean burritos instead of carnitas. Eat different whole grains, produce, nuts and chickpeas, for example, while cutting back on sugar, oil and fats. For more ideas, see World Wildlife Fund and Knorr’s report, The Future 50 Foods, a collection of global, plant-based foods that will minimally impact the environment while boosting the nutritional value of meals.
3. Choose Minimally Processed Food
In our grab-and-go society, processed foods are a convenient choice. They’re there when we need them and boast all sorts of time-saving claims. The more the food is processed, including sugary beverages, chips and crackers, and pre-made desserts, the more energy is used and the greater the environmental impact. Plus, products lose a lot of their nutritional quality as they are processed, which means more food must be produced to meet minimum nutrition guidelines. Focus on fresh, frozen and canned fruits, veggies, fish and more, with fewer additives and less overall processing.
4. Watch Your Waste
Just as damaging to the planet as overusing water, energy and land, wasting food is a growing concern. Currently, the United States wastes almost 40% of the food it grows – if we consider food waste to be a global entity, it would be third in line, after China and the U.S., in emitting the most greenhouse gasses. Thankfully, there are simple fixes you can make to reduce your contribution to that waste. Choose loose produce at the grocery store so that you have just the amount you need. Or, if you have too much at a time, freeze what you can’t use immediately (you can even freeze eggs!). Use browned bananas to make yummy bread or throw them in a smoothie. Push the limit (a little) of the expiration guidance on food labels – many items are safe for days after the “best by” date. Shop the bulk aisles for snacks, dried beans and grains. And share meals at restaurants where you are routinely unable to clear your plate.
5. Choose Oils Carefully
We mentioned above that it’s a good idea to reduce your use of oils—let’s talk specifically about unsustainable palm oil for a minute. This particular oil is responsible for large-scale deforestation that is threatening the habitats of wildlife (orangutans, tigers and more). Plus, palm oil production contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll admit that it will be difficult to eradicate palm oil completely from your kitchen, seeing as it’s in close to half of all packaged products. Think, instead, about choosing RSPO-certified, sustainable palm oil or buying fewer products that contain palm oil.
6. Shop the Farmers Market
By browsing the colorful stalls of your local farmer’s market, you can be assured of fresh, in-season produce that hasn’t traveled too far to get to your neighborhood. (Even when traveling, you can find markets and locally-owned restaurants to visit.) Get to know your local producers, who will gladly give out gardening tips so you can try growing your own food at home, and they’ll provide recipes for preparing the ingredients you’re picking up at the market. Added bonus: The taste of fresh, farmer’s market fare is a cut above anything you’re likely to pick up at the big-box grocery stores. Consider, too, joining a CSA and buying a share of a local farm’s harvest. You’ll get amazingly fresh food (whether fruit, vegetable or even beef), support local farmers and eat healthier overall.
7. Select Sustainable Seafood
We’ve all heard that we should include fish in our diets for its heart-healthy benefits, but it’s important to choose carefully when selecting seafood. “Approximately 94% of fish stocks are overfished (34%) or maximally sustainably fished (60%),” according to WWF. What does that mean? Fish stock has a maximum sustainable yield (MSY): the highest possible annual catch that can be sustained for a long period of time, basically the point of equilibrium between the fish population and commercial fishing. When seafood is responsibly produced instead, it benefits nature and the climate, particularly when we choose a diversity of species and eat lower in the food chain, such as filter-feeding shellfish. Choose seafood that is deemed climate-friendly, which means it has been fished and farmed in ways that lower carbon emissions. Research the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), both of which have high environmental standards and are traceable. And avoid the most vulnerable seafood, which comes from deep-sea fisheries, or is an endangered, threatened or protected species.
8. Reduce Your Reliance on Plastic
Always leave the house with a reusable shopping bag—you never know when you’re going to need it, and it stops you from grabbing a plastic bag. Choose loose and package-free produce and purchase cereal, pasta and rice from the bulk bins and store them at home in a reusable container. Ask your local grocery store how they are reducing their use of plastic. Choose reusable lunch containers and utensils, and bring your own container for restaurant leftovers. And, bring along that travel mug when you visit the coffee shop.
9. Get App-y With It
Overwhelmed with how to make the necessary changes to eat a more sustainable diet? Download the free Impact Score mobile app with ethical and sustainability information about more than 250,000 products. Badges are assigned to each product you scan with the app, telling you how ethical, sustainable and healthy it is. Was that palm oil sourced responsibly? Is the packaging recyclable? Find out immediately and shop more responsibly.
10. Grow Your Own Food
Food straight from your own backyard—or even just herbs from your windowsill—doesn’t have to travel farther than your dining table. Pick the brains of homeowners in your neighborhoods with gardens you admire. Take a class at a local nursery. Cultivate a plot at your nearest community P-patch. Make easy recipes at home for go-to granolas and hummus. You’re not paying for production or packaging, so not only are you saving money, but you’re reducing waste. Whether you have a green thumb or not, you can certainly compost. Orange peels, the shell of spaghetti squash—don’t toss them. Keep food out of landfills and compost the leftovers into nutrient-rich fertilizer, which in turn helps your community or your own garden grow more nutritious foods.
Planet-based diets score high when it comes to human health and low when it comes to environmental impact. These simple changes, on a routine basis, have long-lasting benefits and combat global threats such as deforestation, pollution, nature loss, habitat conversion, climate change and more. By eating what is available and accessible and making more mindful choices, we can all make a difference.