How to Eat as if the Planet Mattered

Consuming less, wasting less, and varying your food choices can all benefit the planet—and you.
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Eating as if the planet matters means eating more healthful foods, wasting less, helping reverse climate change, and reducing the rates of overfishing and overexploitation of soils.

Photo by Brooke Lark/Unsplash. 

Earth Day, April 22, is an opportunity to eat in ways that better protect both people and the planet. Eating as if the planet matters means eating more healthful foods, wasting less, helping reverse climate change, and reducing the rates of overfishing and overexploitation of soils. These changes can also help consumers save money and build more resilient communities.

In honor of Earth Day, Food Tank is highlighting five high-impact actions each person can take to eat as if the planet mattered:

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1) Tailor your portion sizes.

Overeating hurts more than just our bodies. The environmental impacts of industrialized food production and consumption cost the global economy trillions of dollars through water pollution, habitat destruction, antimicrobial resistance, and other avenues, according to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). Tailoring portion sizes is an efficient way to reduce these environmental burdens.

In 2016, researchers at Tufts University found that 92 percent of restaurant portions at restaurants in Boston, Little Rock, Arkansas, and San Francisco exceeded the number of recommended calories. A study by nutritionists Marion Nestle and Lisa Young found that portion sizes for pasta dishes at popular takeout, fast-food, and family restaurants in the U.S. are almost five times larger than the individual portion size recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Further, portion sizes are not static. They have steadily been increasing in the U.S. in recent decades, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The sizes of individual food items sold in grocery stores, from chocolate bars to beers, has grown by an average of between two and five times, according to Nestle and Young.

Tips:

  • When eating out, plan to take food home from every meal. Since most restaurant portions are too big anyway, leaving a clean plate at the end of a meal should be an exception. Bringing reusable takeout containers to each restaurant meal is a great way to both remember not to overeat and to reduce unnecessary packaging waste.
  • For home-cooked meals, check out tools like the portion reference guide and recipe builder published by pasta company Barilla . Plan to go back for seconds rather than piling up a plate right off the bat.

2) Waste less

If food waste were a country, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the U.S.

Some 1.3 billion tons of edible food go to waste every year globally. This is equal to more than 2 tons (4,000 pounds) of wasted food per hungry person per year.

National, international, and industry initiatives are making significant gains in increasing consumer awareness of the environmental impacts of food waste. A report by Edelman Intelligence found that the number of media articles published annually in the U.S. about food waste tripled between 2011 and 2016, according to NRDC. In 2016, 74 percent of U.S. consumers reported in a survey commissioned by The Ad Council that food waste was important to them. But the organization ReFED also reports that households are still responsible for the largest portion of all food waste by sector.

Eaters have the power to reduce waste every day, at every meal.

Tips:

3) Eat a more plant-based diet

Americans eat more meat than residents of any other country, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Eating a plant-based diet means rethinking the way meals are organized and, instead, making plant foods the focal point of the plate.

Reducing consumption of factory-farmed animal products can be an efficient strategy to improve human health, protect the environment, and spare farm animals from cruelty. Because animals have to eat a lot of high-protein plant foods to put on the muscle mass that humans then eat, animals multiply any negative impacts of food production.

More than a quarter of the land on Earth is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are farmed exclusively to feed livestock, according to the FAO. Research published in the journal Nature calculated that eating more plant-based proteins could reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions by up to 55 percent. Eating less meat could also reduce an individual’s food-related water footprint by up to 36 percent, according to research conducted at the University of Twente.

High-protein plant alternatives to meat are plentiful and increasingly affordable. Pulses, the high-protein food group that includes beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are a healthful, water-efficient, drought tolerant, and soil-building choice, according to the FAO.

Tips:

  • Start with one meatless day per week. Meatless Mondays are an internationally popular way to mix up a weekly meal-planning routine and incorporate new recipes and dishes.
  • Refine your meat consumption and choose products from companies who are striving to be socially and environmentally responsible like Organic Valley and Niman Ranch.
  • Revisit favorite recipes and substitute plant proteins in place of animal products. Tacos, pasta dishes, curries, and burger-centric meals are all great candidates. Barilla’s Passion for Pasta recipe site promotes recipes designed with plant foods at their focal points.
  • For added incentive, consider the health benefits of plant-based diets. Even moderate dietary changes in the direction of a healthful plant-based diet significantly reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes and heart disease , according to Dr. Ambika Satija, a researcher at Harvard University who studied data from 200,000 Americans over more than 20 years.

4) Eat Low on the Marine Food Chain

When choosing which seafood products to incorporate into meal plans, an easy way to keep environmental impacts low is to aim low on the food chain. Eating large, predatory fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna or cod, has dramatically higher environmental impacts than eating fish that feed on plants, insects, or plankton, like tilapia, mackerel, or herring.

Chefs are increasingly using their celebrity, including Ned Bell, Renee Erickson, and Dan Barber, to call for a sea change in the industry towards smaller fish, like sardines, and shellfish. Filter feeders like mussels and oysters, which are about as close to the bottom of the food chain as it’s possible to get, have the added benefit of sequestering climate-warming carbon dioxide in their shells.

Tips:

  • The first step is knowing not only which seafood to avoid, but also which to aim for. Seafood Watch, a project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, maintains a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to seafood purchasing, which is also available as an app. The Environmental Defense Fund has a slightly more streamlined tool.
  • As new, unfamiliar seafoods get incorporated into diets across the U.S., sustainable seafood recipe guides have been sprouting up across the internet. Oceana partnered with a number of high-profile chefs on a useful list, and the editors of the James Beard Foundation’s blog did too.

5) Eat Forgotten and Endangered Foods

Globally, agrobiodiversity is in rapid decline. Ninety percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields and only 12 plant species account for 75 percent of the world’s total food supply, according to the FAO. Homogeneous food systems are less resilient to a range of threats, including drought, insect pests, and diseases, according to CGIAR, a global consortium of research centers.

The Crop Trust is working globally to stem the loss of agrobiodiversity and has conserved almost 1 million varieties of crops. They manage a number of multilateral initiatives, including the Food Forever Initiative, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and a global partnership to conserve crop wild relatives.

International initiatives like ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, are working with producers to popularize crops that are not well-known. ICRISAT promotes nutrient-rich, drought-tolerant crops such as millet and sorghum through their Smart Food initiative.

Tips:

  • Try new fruits and vegetables. As spring arrives, an abundance of underutilized crops coming into season in the U.S. farmers markets include  chicories, cardoons, spring onions, sorrels, fennel, and rutabagas. Farmers will only be able to produce more of them if they know that they have demand.
  • Branch out and prioritize buying new varieties and unfamiliar relatives of old favorites. A few kinds of chicories, for example, can be found in many grocery stores and farmers markets, such as radicchio and Belgian endives. The diversity available is expanding along with demand, however, and more variations are becoming available, such as tardivo, puntarelle, castelfranco, and sugarloaf.
  • Look to foods that are native to a region. North America, for example, is home to dozens of edible crops that have been cultivated by indigenous peoples for millennia. Because these crops have existed in local ecosystems for so long, many have been bred to be resistant to local pests and diseases and to tolerate local climatic variability.

This article was originally published by Food Tank. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.