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Cutting the Carbon Footprint of Your Diet

When I was in college, I had an insanely fast metabolism and loved to eat meat. I would begin many days with a breakfast sandwich that I nicknamed the anti-vegan. It consisted of an english muffin containing an egg, two sausages, a slice of cheddar cheese, a slice of ham, and a strip of bacon. I somehow got on a mailing list for the vegan group on campus and asked to be removed. In my request, I described myself as a voraciously carnivorous beast. In spite of all that, I was a scrawny 135 lbs and couldn’t gain a pound, despite a downing Weight Gain branded milkshake every other evening. 

That was 15 years ago, and back then I was thinking about how the food tasted and was largely ignorant of the effects of my diet on the planet. I thought global warming was a problem caused by transportation and industry. I was only ⅔ right.

When it comes to cutting your personal carbon footprint, your diet may be one of the most meaningful and easy things to change. This is also an area where healthy living and your environmental conscience will be nicely in agreement. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from two different sources – first, there’s the production of the food itself, and then there’s processing, transportation from the farm to your kitchen, and cooking. Emissions at the farm come from fertilizer, planting (the tractor, etc), harvesting, and in the case of animal protein, methane emissions. 

A team at the University of Oxford studied the diets of several thousand people in the UK and calculated their greenhouse gas emissions based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Unsurprisingly, they found that heavy meat eaters had the highest emissions and vegans had the lowest. However, even if you don’t want to give up meat entirely, cutting your meat intake makes a big difference, as does restricting the kind of meat you eat. The largest culprits are lamb, beef, and dairy. Here’s a visual representation from the Environmental Working Group, which compared its production estimates to peer reviewed and government sponsored studies. 

Consuming red meat has been associated with higher rates of heart disease. For a 2,000 calorie diet, the USDA recommends no more than 5.5 ounces of meat per day, which can be replaced with 1.25 cups of beans.  

The tricky part is getting used to a change in diet. I’m not about to become a vegetarian or a vegan, but I’m done being a voraciously carnivorous beast (I am also done with the metabolism I had at 19.) I’ve committed myself to cutting my meat intake in half or more, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions associated with the meat that I eat. How everyone goes about this may be different, but here are some things I’ve found helpful:

  1. I’ve cut my beef intake to nearly zero. Yes, steak tastes good, but so do salmon, chicken, and pork. I can get by without it. I never ate much lamb to begin with.
  2. I’ve gone vegetarian for several meals per week. I’m accustomed to a lot of protein, but I get it mostly through beans, grains, and the occasional plant based protein bar or powder. 
  3. The instant pot is a life changer. I find bean recipes to be delicious. You can serve them over rice and reheat them later to make things like black bean burritos. Yes, I add a little cheese to them, but only a little. 
  4. When cooking with the instant pot, I also make stews and split pea soup with sausage or other meat, but it’s easy to reduce the amount of meat relative to vegetables.
  5. Non-meat based burgers like the beyond burger or boca burger are actually quite tasty and provide an alternative to beef and chicken burgers. Some vegetarian sausage is also surprisingly good.
  6. When serving meat, don’t make it the main attraction. Keep it small, and make the vegetables and grains more prominent. 
  7. For high protein snacks, try plant based protein bars like the macrobar. After the gym, a little soy milk with plant based protein powder beats the whey based stuff both on taste and on emissions.
  8. When you’re eating out, look for vegetarian alternatives. You may find something new to cook at home. I tried Tofu Yakisoba, and found that I liked it a lot.
  9. Buy local! The eggs and produce at your local farmers market probably have probably been transported a much shorter distance and as such have a smaller carbon footprint.

Changing your diet can seem like a challenge at first, but with a little time, you’ll find that you’re thinner, happier, and healthier. I no longer have the metabolism I had back in college, but with a better diet, I’m not packing on the pounds either.

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