How to eat a more sustainable diet

This article originally appeared in the Tufts Health and Nutrition Charter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Find out how to get expert guidance on how to cook, eat and live healthy.

The food choices you make can have a real impact on the environment. Crop production and raising animals for food generates about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for about 70 percent of all freshwater use, the vast majority from tropical deforestation. On top of that, food waste and packaging have their own environmental impacts. Fortunately, there are simple, specific things you can do to make a difference. Take a look at the ideas below and pick a few that might work for you.

eat less

“As a population here in the US, we eat too much,” says Timothy Griffin, PhD, professor of Nutrition, Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems at the Friedman School. “If we could reduce excess food, it would be good for the environment and good for our health!” Try to serve smaller portions and wait to see if you are really hungry before taking others. Other strategies include eating from a smaller plate, eating without distractions, chewing your food well, putting down your fork between bites or every few bites, sharing with someone, and packing some food for the next day.

Reduce food waste

“A third or more of the food in the United States is thrown away,” says Griffin, “and much of this waste It’s at the household level.” We’re not just wasting money, we’re wasting the water used to grow that food, the oil used to deliver it, and other natural resources that are used to create food and bring it to your table. Meanwhile, food packaging clogs our oceans and landfills, and rotting food in landfills contributes to global warming. Try these tips to reduce food waste:

  • Plan meals. Base your shopping list only on what you plan to wear.
  • Be realistic. That jumbo bag or box may cost less, but you’re throwing away your money (while damaging the environment) if it goes wrong before finishing it.
  • Store food properly. Learn how to store perishable foods so they stay fresh; seal bags and packages well to prevent breads, rolls, and crackers from going stale; wrap foods to be frozen tightly with as little exposure to air as possible to reduce freezer burn; keep oils away from light and heat to prevent them from turning rancid; and keep milk cold to prevent it from spoiling prematurely.
  • Freeze extra. Aren’t you going to use the whole package of chicken breasts? Freeze some for another day. Bread, vegetables, and fruit can also be frozen (or pickled or preserved).
  • Choose wisely. Fresh vegetables are great for a salad or crudité dish, but bags of frozen vegetables have a longer shelf life and are great for stir-fries, soups, and stews.
  • Have a “day to spare.” Pick one day a week to use whatever is in your fridge. Have a buffet of bits and pieces from previous meals; Stir-fry with those extra veggies and protein; top a bowl of cereal or a green salad.
  • Be creative. Think outside the box when it comes to finding ways to use food before it spoils.
  • Donate. Help your community by dropping unopened extras that unlikely to use it your local food pantry. Made more than one dish that can you eat reasonably? Offer to drop some off at a neighbor’s door or invite a friend to join you.
  • Use your sense and your senses. Foods are good for several days past their “Sell By” dates and are almost always good beyond their “Use By” or expiration dates. Trust your senses more than dates. Look for mold, off-odors, colors or flavors, and unexpected carbonation or swelling of the package.
  • Re-use. Turn stale bread into croutons or breadcrumbs. Cook edible stems (like the tops of beets) instead of discarding them. Turn wilted vegetables and fruits into soup (see recipe on page 7) or smoothies. Cook soft, mold-free berries into oatmeal or puree them into a sauce (try it mixed with plain yogurt!). Slice and freeze soft bananas and blend in a blender or food processor into a soft serve ice cream substitute.
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Return fruit and vegetable scraps to the ground with a compost bin in your garden. Photo: Skorzewiak/Shutterstock


When all else fails, it returns the remains of fruits and vegetables to the earth. start a compost bin in your own yard or find local composting centers or farmers who will take those leftovers off your hands.

Make smart trades

Some foods have a bigger environmental impact than others, so cutting back on them in favor of other healthy foods you enjoy is a great way to make an impact. “Foods that come from animals have a greater environmental impact than plant foods,” says Griffin. “Beef gets the most attention, because raising cattle requires a lot of land, most of which is grass or grazing land, and the animals emit methane. The same is true for dairy animals, but in that case the feed (milk) comes from the animal and not from the slaughter of the animal, and the cattle live longer. Other meats (pork and poultry) follow in terms of environmental impact, followed by fish and shellfish”. Replacing animal proteins with plant proteins (soybeans and other legumes, nuts/seeds, and whole grains (particularly protein-rich grains like quinoa and amaranth)) would have the greatest environmental benefit. “Keep in mind that foods like plant-based meat substitutes and non-dairy milks, yogurts, and cheeses have a lower environmental impact than animal versions,” says Griffin, “but these are also ultra-processed foods, so that there is a compensation there. ”

Changes don’t have to be big to make a difference. A new study looked at how making small changes to your diet would affect your water scarcity footprint and greenhouse gas emission levels. The researchers looked at the environmental impact of participants’ self-reported dietary intake and then recalculated after swapping specific foods for nutritionally and calorically equivalent options that were more climate-friendly. Not surprisingly, the beef switch had the biggest impact. If participants had chosen poultry or pork instead of beef, their average carbon footprint would have decreased by more than 48 percent and their water scarcity footprint would have decreased by about 30 percent. Other environmentally impactful swaps included choosing peanuts over almonds, swapping cod for shrimp, and substituting cow’s milk for soy milk.

Maybe your area has farmers’ markets or farm stands, or you can buy a piece from a grower who participates in community supported agriculture (CSA). Photo:

buy local

Patronizing your neighborhood stores supports the local economy, and buying food grown as locally as possible (when it’s in season) reduces air pollution created by shipping food to your area. “Buying local produce also allows people to engage with the food system,” says Griffin. “Going to a farmer’s market, for example, allows you to talk to the person who made what you’re eating. It connects you with your food.”

While it is of course necessary to buy imported produce and take advantage of frozen options in areas with short growing seasons and/or limited selection, buying locally grown seasonal foods is a positive step if you have the option. Maybe your area has farmers’ markets or farm stands, or you can buy a piece from a grower who participates in community supported agriculture (CSA). This would provide you with a box of locally grown produce each week. You can also grow your own! Herbs and a number of vegetables, including tomatoes, bell peppers, and green onions, work great in containers, so you don’t need a garden if you want to supplement your homegrown fruit and vegetable selections.

Reduce reuse recycle

Packaged foods create a large amount of waste, much of which is difficult or impossible to recycle. Plastic is filling landfills and clogging our oceans. Try the following tips to reduce your waste.

  • Bring a reusable water bottle o Refill plastic water bottles instead of throwing them away after the first use.
  • Ask your coffee shop to fill her reusable cup instead of giving her a new paper cup every day.
  • Buy your product without bagging and unwrapped. (Reusable produce bags are a good solution if you prefer to store them.)
  • Buy less prepared foods and packaged goods (this is good for your diet and good for the environment).
  • Consider glass bottles and jars instead of plastic if available, wash and reuse. (Jars are great for storing leftovers, storing broth you make with leftovers, or pickling vegetables that could go to waste.)
  • Take full advantage of recycling programs in your area.

“Incremental changes are fine!” Griffin says. “Consciously think about what ecological changes, large or small, would be appropriate for you.”