The average American diet is energy intensive—our food requires huge amounts of fossil fuels to cultivate, package, market and distribute. By making a few smart food choices every day, you can save tons of fuel and other resources—and you’ll also be eating healthier and fresher foods.
To help you shift into environmental gear at mealtime, we’ve listed the top 10 areas in which your wise choices can make a difference for you, your family and the earth.
Bon Appetit! The following choices can fuel diversity in your diet--and help save the planet, one meal at a time.
1. Eat Local. Shipping food from other regions or countries demands energy and fossil fuels. Refrigerated transportation requires even more. A typical meal travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach your plate.
Visit your local farmer’s market. Local choices will drastically reduce the amount of fossil fuels used for shipping, plus you’ll help create a demand for diversity within the neighboring farming communities.
2. Look for grass-fed, natural and organic meats and dairy. Large-scale, conventional factory farms use immense quantities of water, grain and fuel. The United Nations estimates that livestock activities contribute 18 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions—more than transportation. The waste from livestock operations also contributes to air and water pollution. Dairy cows in conventional factory farms are sometimes given genetically engineered growth hormones to increase milk production. These drugs are persistent in the environment, and their long-term effects on humans are largely unknown.
Many reputable organic meat and dairy companies raise animals without antibiotics and hormones and with higher standards of responsibility toward the animals, the environment and human health. Cattle that graze produce less methane gas than their factory farm counterparts because cows can digest grass more easily than corn. And eating meats with fewer additives will reduce their accumulation in our own bodies.
3. Include more plant-based proteins in your diet. Americans are eating substantially more meat than they did 50 years ago, largely because factory farms have expedited meat production, making meat less expensive and more readily available. But so much meat in our diets isn’t necessary and may not be healthy. Beans, nuts, quinoa and sprouts are all great plant-based protein sources that are delicious, nutritious and eco-friendly. Eaten in combination, beans and grains supply complete proteins.
4. Buy organic. When possible, buy certified organic foods or those from farms where practices include crop rotation, natural pest control, and soil and water conservation. Organic foods are also produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemical pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers.
5. Choose from foods from the earth. Packaged food requires more energy to make than foods that go straight from the farm stand or grocer to the kitchen. Factory processing and transportation of packaged items requires fuel. The containers—especially those made from plastic—require even more petroleum.
Eat fresh from the farm or produce section whenever possible. When you do buy packaged or processed food, look for minimal packaging made with biodegradable or recycled materials, and soy-based inks. Also look for packaged foods with short ingredient lists and ingredient names you recognize.
6. Drink tap water. Americans spent nearly $11 billion on more than 8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006, then tossed more than 22 billion empty plastic bottles in the trash, according to The Green Guide. In bottle production alone, the more than 70 million bottles of water consumed each day in the United States drain 1.5 million barrels of oil over the course of one year.
Take advantage of readily available tap water with a reusable stainless steel bottle. You’ll save precious natural resources (and avoid possible leaching toxins) by using less plastic, and you will also save a significant amount of money—bottled water costs about 4,000 times more than tap, according to a report by The Sierra Club.
Plus, bottled water quality is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has weaker regulations than the Environmental Protection Agency tap water regulations, the report says.
7. Grow your own. By growing what you eat—and giving some away to friends—you will reduce your carbon footprint and may even develop a new appreciation for the produce that grows seasonally. Get your community and family involved, too!
8. Eat more whole grains. Try brown rice or quinoa—or switch to unbleached wheat flour in your next recipe. Refined sugars and flour require more processing—read more energy used and less nutrients retained. Most whole grains are loaded with nutrients.
9. Make dessert naturally sweet. Each person consumes the equivalent of 1 bushel, or 56 pounds, of corn a year. Because corn is used as livestock feed, as an inexpensive sweetener, and as an ingredient in many processed foods, you might be unaware of the amount of corn you actually eat. Processed foods produced from corn require a lot of fossil fuels to create. Try honey, molasses or fruit juices in recipes, and look for pure cane sugar in sodas and bakery goods.
10. Eat leftovers. Restaurant portion sizes are usually huge, so don’t forget to bring leftovers home (ask for paper or foil rather than foam, or bring your own reusable containers). Cooking extra meals and storing them for later makes sense, too. Not only do these tactics save food and energy, they save money and time.