The Impact of Eating Habits on Sustainability: Going Green in the Kitchen and Beyond
Published : 11 Oct 2021 Industry: Food & Beverage
As our planet faces the challenges of climate change, population growth, and dwindling natural resources, many people are looking for ways to take small steps to make a big difference. This can mean familiar measures like cutting back on your carbon footprint by using less electricity and fuel-based transportation methods.
Your diet, however, is one area that might get overlooked when it comes to sustainability. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stresses the necessity of including food and diet in our conservation efforts: "Considering the detrimental environmental impact of our current food systems, and the concerns raised about their sustainability, there is an urgent need to promote diets that are healthy and have low environmental impacts. These diets also need to be socio-culturally acceptable and economically accessible for all."
Sustainability demands are dramatically affecting a variety of markets, but one place where eco-friendly consumer preferences are making an impact is the food and beverage market. It turns out that what you eat or drink can impact your health and the environment. Luckily, with minor changes in their day-to-day routines, individuals and companies can reduce the environmental impact of their food choices.
How to Have a More Sustainable Diet
Sustainability means living in harmony with the environment. That means eating foods that are grown locally and sustainably, taking care to reduce your carbon footprint by driving less, and recycling more.
But how do you make these changes? What steps can you take to become more environmentally conscious? Read on for some of the most critical aspects of sustainable living through one of its most significant contributors — food.
Eat More Plants and Fewer Animals
Beef, pork, and poultry have some of the largest carbon footprints. The production and transportation of ruminant meats, such as beef and lamb, requires vast amounts of feed that must be grown and transported.
Beef's carbon footprint is the largest by far — with 219.32 pounds (99.48 kilograms) of greenhouse gas emissions per pound of food product. Replacing beef with poultry or pork can lead to a 20 to 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, lamb, pork, and poultry production make up a large number of greenhouse emissions as well.
Eating fruits and vegetables is more sustainable because their production requires less energy, pesticides, and fertilizer and does not involve industrial-scale grain monocultures. Monocultures require pesticides, take up space from other crops, can cause disease in plants, and can threaten soil integrity — and most of these crops go to livestock, not humans.
Plant-Based and Plant-Forward Diets
Plant-based diets — even plant-based fast foods — are becoming increasingly popular for their sustainability and health benefits. Plant-based diets consist primarily of plant foods with no animal products, while plant-forward diets include plants mainly but may allow small amounts of animal protein. Many people may associate a plant-forward diet with veganism. However, many individuals who follow plant-forward diets — such as vegetarians — may not be fully vegan by definition or practice.
The terms "plant-forward," "vegan," and "vegetarian" are often incorrectly used interchangeably. A vegan diet is the strictest form of a plant-based diet that avoids all meat or other animal products, including dairy and eggs. People who are following a plant-based diet may not be full vegans because they consume some animal-sourced foods like eggs, honey, and certain cheeses.
Vegans follow both a dietary pattern and an ethical philosophy that seeks to exclude exploitation of animals for any purpose whatsoever — whether for food, clothing, or anything.
A vegetarian diet may include milk and eggs, while a vegan diet does not. A vegan diet is the only way to exclude all animal products from one's lifestyle. People on a plant-forward diet may not be full vegans because they consume some of the above animal-source foods.
Nevertheless, plant-based and plant-forward diets are more sustainable, as they emphasize including more plants in your diet — reducing the carbon footprint of the production of animal and meat products. If you want to eat sustainably, you can still have meat in your diet, but choose better-sourced meat. The organic chicken market is increasing, due in large part, to sustainability.
Eat a Variety of Foods
One way to eat a more sustainable diet is to include a greater variety of foods in your meals. Not only does this allow you to get all the nutrients you need without exceeding recommendations for individual foods, but it also reduces the environmental impact of your food choices.
When consumers consistently choose specific types of animals and plants over other similar options, they give those items an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
For example, producing one pound of beef requires considerably more land and water than growing vegan proteins such as beans or nuts that provide equivalent protein and calories. If everyone were to replace beef with beans, it would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions greatly. To slow the pace of climate change, it's essential to avoid or minimize eating beef and other meats. Consider replacing them with other, more sustainable proteins in your diet.
Local and Seasonal Foods
Fruits and vegetables grown locally and seasonally are usually a highly sustainable food choice for several reasons. First of all, they often taste better than out-of-season produce because they are harvested when ripe, not picked before they are ready to go to market. This higher quality can cut down on food waste.
Local and seasonal produce also has more nutritional value when eaten soon after harvest, rather than being stored for long periods. Moreover, buying local food supports the local economy. It provides jobs in sales, distribution, harvesting, and at farmers markets where producers sell products directly.
Finally, because these foods are either raised close to your home or regionally, their transportation costs are lower and require less fuel. You can often find local and seasonal foods at farmers markets, co-ops, and through community-supported agriculture shares — just make sure you examine where this food comes from and how it is sourced and transported.
Reduce Your Food Waste
It is estimated that up to 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten. This equates to 108 billion pounds of food wasted in the U.S. each year.
Food waste has negative environmental, social, and financial ramifications. This wasted food represents an enormous amount of energy, water, money, and land.
There are several ways you can reduce food waste. You can shop smarter by buying less. Plan your meals around what you have on hand instead of planning meals that require you to buy a whole new batch of ingredients. It’s a great idea to write a weekly menu or use an app to help with meal planning.
If you happen to find yourself at the grocery store without a list, you can still choose fruits, vegetables, and other perishables that are in season. If produce is not in season, it is likely shipped from another country, which requires energy-intensive methods. This means more wasted resources.
It will also be essential to eat your leftovers. Leftovers are great for lunch the next day (instead of ordering in or eating out), and any food leftover should be eaten or composted to reduce waste.
Eliminating Single-Use Plastic
The effects plastics have on the environment are enormous. It can take hundreds of years for plastic to decompose. Furthermore, plastic carries toxic chemicals that could kill marine life if they ingest it.
Invest in reusable water bottles, food wraps, baggies, straws, Tupperware, and any other consumer goods that you won't throw out after one use. This can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, save animals, and have a major impact on the environment.
Grow Your Own Food
Growing your fruits, vegetables, and even spices can go a long way in creating sustainable eating habits. Even a small plot of land in your backyard can yield fruits and vegetables that will cut down on your food bill and carbon footprint.
Not only does growing your food reduce waste from shipping, but it is also more likely to be naturally organic. With home-grown, organic produce, you aren't contributing to the carbon-intensive production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Even if you do not have any space or interest in gardening, you can still support local farmers by purchasing directly from them at the farmers market.
Kitchen Waste Composting
Composting your kitchen waste is not only helpful in reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfills, but it can also help reduce your carbon footprint. Carbon from food decomposing in landfills is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary culprit in global warming.
Convenient composting options like reusable, biodegradable, and compostable K-Cups as well as compostable bags make it easy to compost almost all kitchen waste, including coffee grounds and leftover foods. Composting your food scraps not only helps the planet; it is a great way to grow nutritious vegetables and herbs for your family. Most composting systems can be used indoors or outdoors, so you pick the location that works best in your home.
How Can Industries Support Sustainable Eating?
Businesses have perhaps a larger moral obligation to support sustainable eating, as they employ hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Universities, hospitals, and other large institutions need to offer sustainable eating options to serve as leaders of change and inspiration for consumers and the community.
A handful of giant companies control the majority of the food industry. These businesses need to be pressured to follow every step in the transformation cycle, from wholesome raw materials, sustainable growing methods, and efficient processing and packaging practices.
Major retailers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's have sustainability programs that focus on fresh products with minimal processing and packaging. However, to make a significant change, many other organizations will need some of the following policies.
Increase Recycling Efforts
The organic waste that ends up in landfills is one of the most prominent creators of methane gas, which impacts global warming. Increasing recycling efforts helps alleviate this problem by minimizing inorganic, non-compostable debris in landfills to reduce your organization’s carbon footprint.
Organizations can reduce waste by increasing recycling efforts such as:
- Conducting waste audits and developing a waste reduction plan.
- Working with vendors to reduce and recycle packaging and products using sustainable practices.
- Creating composting programs in the office to increase fertilizer for landscaping.
- Promoting reusable products such as travel mugs, water bottles, utensils, and coffee cups.
Support Local Farmers and Agriculture
Through local sourcing and advocacy, organizations can support sustainable eating habits by supporting local farmers and agriculture. Supporting local farms and agricultural producers helps provide a stable food source for the population and supports the surrounding communities and economies.
Organizations can get involved in these programs by:
- Developing marketing campaigns to promote local produce or products from farms within their community.
- Using social media platforms such as Facebook to communicate information about the benefits of buying locally and showcasing local vendors.
- Encouraging employees to live sustainably by providing incentives and negotiating discounts to buy locally.
Advocate for Eating Green in the Workplace
Some organizations are using company initiatives to promote sustainable eating habits in the workplace. Some of these initiatives include requiring that their food providers offer vegetarian options or promoting meatless Mondays.
Organizations are also offering their employees incentives to get active. These initiatives include hiring personal trainers and providing healthy snacks. Organizations can also create guides to assist in continuing sustainable eating habits.
More organizations must follow suit by implementing similar initiatives to create an environment that promotes sustainable eating habits among employees. The goal is not only to reduce company spending but also to help employees maintain healthier lifestyles and impact the environment.
Start a Workplace Garden
A company garden can provide many employees with fruits and vegetables for a plant-forward diet. Consider designating spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, for a workplace garden. Employees can then care for the garden, which includes planting, harvesting, and composting.
Not only will this support sustainable eating habits, but employees will be able to use it as a break or lunch spot and enjoy its views. In addition, this is a fun team-building activity for employees to learn from each other.