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This Food Swap Can Reduce Your Carbon Footprint by 48%

A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found this one food swap can drastically better the planet.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

If your New Year's resolution is to live more sustainably, a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals one easy way to accomplish your goal.

According to the researchers, substituting high-impact foods—such as beef or dairy milk—for lower impact foods could decrease your carbon footprint and your water footprint. And the best part? You only need to make a single substitution!

Animal-derived products tend to have a higher carbon and water footprint than plant-based products. And foods that contain beef tend to have a much greater environmental impact. While many studies have been done to understand how major dietary changes can impact the environment, this study focuses on making one small change.

The Study

The study focused on two environmental factors: greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and water usage. The environmental impact of food is largely a result of agricultural activities, which can have high GHGE and use a lot of water. Researchers from Tulane University and the University of Michigan analyzed what over 16,000 Americans eat in a day and calculated the environmental impact of making simple food substitutions.

Specifically, researchers found that beef was the most impactful food. And if substituted for a more environmentally friendly option—such as chicken—individuals' carbon and water footprints could decrease roughly 48% and 30%, respectively.

Additionally, the study found that if only 20% of Americans substituted beef for a more eco-friendly option for just one meal, the carbon footprint of all U.S. diets could decrease by nearly 10%. In addition, water-use impacts could decrease by almost 6%.

Researchers also studied the impact of substituting foods like dairy milk with soy milk and asparagus with peas. Replacing dairy milk with soy milk had an approximate 8% GHGE reduction. And replacing asparagus with peas had roughly a 48% decrease in the water scarcity footprint. While some substitutions have a greater impact than others, the results of this study show that small changes could have a major environmental impact.

How to Make Sustainable Swaps

Changing your diet is easier said than done. Luckily, with this new data, all you need to do is make one small change. If you're not sure how to make sustainable substitutions, but want to give it a try, here are a few ways to begin.

Just remember: Sustainability comes in all shapes and sizes, so it's important to make choices that work best for you!

1. Try Plant-Based Recipes

You don't have to be vegan or vegetarian to eat plant-based meals. If you're looking for easy plant-based recipes to try, we have plenty of options.

Meat alternatives are one way to make your meal more planet-friendly. Try jackfruit, tofu, or tempeh. Plus, there are plant-based diet recipes for every meal of the day, even if you're just looking for a quick snack.

2. Participate in Meatless Mondays

If you're able to cut out meat for just one day a week, give it a try! Meatless Monday is a movement that aims to combat climate change by eliminating meat from your diet one day each week. If you're unable to give this a try, don't worry. Instead, try eliminating meat for just one meal a day. This change can go a long way.

3. Eat Lower Impact Meat

Some of our favorite dishes contain meat, and it can be difficult to give them up. You don't always need to substitute beef with plant-based items. Instead, try eating lower impact meat, such as chicken or turkey.

No matter which meat you choose to eat, be sure to look for organic and ethically raised options. Check for "Certified Humane" or "USDA Organic" labels before purchasing.

4. Go Dairy-Free

Like meat, dairy products have a high carbon and water footprint. Dairy products—including milk, cheese, and butter—come with significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Small substitutions, like opting for dairy-free milk in your morning coffee, could help decrease your carbon and water footprints. Most grocery stores have oat milk or vegan butter you can try!