Can simple diet swaps save the planet?

Posted: 30 October 2023 | | No comments yet

A team of researchers in the US have revealed a number of simple diet changes that can cut carbon emissions.


A team of researchers have released guidance on how making small diet swaps can make a positive impact on the planet.

Claiming that these changes can cut carbon emissions and improve health, the researchers have found that making substitutions such as switching from beef to chicken or drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk could reduce the average American’s carbon footprint from food by 35 percent, while also boosting diet quality by between 4-10 percent.

The study was co-authored by a Tulane University Researcher and was published in Nature Food. Believing making “small changes” can have a big impact, the researchers believe that their findings could encourage more consumers to adopt climate-friendly eating habits.

“This study shows that cutting dietary carbon emissions is accessible and doesn’t have to be a whole lifestyle change,” said Diego Rose, Senior Author and Nutrition Programme Director at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

“It can be as simple as ordering a chicken burrito instead of a beef burrito when you go out to eat. When you’re at the grocery store, move your hand one foot over to grab soy or almond milk instead of cow’s milk. That one small change can have a significant impact.”

Analysing data from over 7,700 Americans, the research team identified commonly eaten foods with the highest climate impact and simulated replacing them with nutritionally similar, lower-emission options.

“For us, substitutes included swapping a beef burger for a turkey burger, not replacing your steak with a tofu hotdog. We looked for substitutes that were as similar as possible,” said Anna Grummon, Lead Author and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy at Stanford University.

The largest projected reductions in emissions were seen in mixed dishes: burritos, pastas and similar popular dishes where items can be substituted for a lower-impact protein instead of beef.

The study expanded on past research by including dietary data for children. Whereas it may be more effective for an adult to focus on protein swaps, Grummon claimed switching children to plant-based milk can have a “meaningful impact on the carbon footprint” and help start positive habits earlier.

How the food industry can transform the national diet

While identifying healthy alternatives to high-carbon foods was not the intent of the study, the tram found swapping to lower carbon foods showed “sizable improvements in how healthy the diets were.”

The authors explained that while these substitutes are not intended as a “cure-all for climate objectives or personal health goals”, they are evidence that small changes can have an impact.

“There is overlap between sustainable diets and healthy diets. Our study shows that changing just one ingredient, making one swap, can be a win-win, resulting in meaningful changes in both climate outcomes and how healthy our diets are,” said Grummon.

Other co-authors of the study included Cristina Lee and Thomas Robinson of Stanford University and Eric Rimm of Harvard University.

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