8 Easy Food Swaps That Help the Planet

Person holding handful of nuts

Daisy Daisy

Ditch the resource-hogging foods for these delicious switches that leave a lighter footstep.

Imagine how simple it must have been back in the days when everyone basically just ate the food grown within a reasonable distance from where they lived. Of course this is likely a thought to induce horror in the mind of the modern foodie, but the idea of not being faced with so many choices seems liberating. Navigating the food system in terms of best nutritional choices is tough enough, but when we toss in making choices about the health of the planet as well it can seem like an even crazier juggling act. But it actually doesn’t have to be so hard; just starting with a few swaps and adding more to your repertory as you go is a great way to transition to a eating in a way that is kind to both your body and the planet. Here are some places to start.

1. Broccoli for asparagus
Asparagus might be the fancy cousin of girl-next-door broccoli, but doesn’t the girl next door always prevail? In the case of broccoli versus asparagus and their water usage, the answer is a resounding yes. Broccoli uses 34 gallons of water per pound (around the same as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, other good options); asparagus requires 258 gallons of water per pound.

2. Millet for rice
Called by some “the new quinoa,” millet has graduated from bird food to trendy superstar, yay millet! That said, millet has been a staple grain across the planet for ages, so western gourmands are actually just catching on. The beauty of millet, aside from its great taste and ease in cooking, is that it is fiercely drought-resistant and requires very little water. In fact, it has the lowest water requirement of any grain. Rice, on the other hand, is a very thirsty crop.

One study found that in areas of iodine deficiency in which millet is a major component of the diet, its ingestion may contribute to the genesis of endemic goiter, so if you have concerns about your thyroid talk to your healthcare provider before binging on the grain. You can also add amaranth and teff into the mix, both of which are delicious and require fewer agricultural resources than rice.

3. Pecans or hazelnuts for almonds
At a gallon per nut, California's almond crop devours 1.1 trillion gallons of water every year ... while California has been suffering a historic drought, 1.1 trillion gallons of water is not a drop in the bucket, so to speak. And most of our almonds come from the Golden State. Meanwhile, pecans and hazelnuts require much less water (although most nuts are in general thirsty crops), and both nut crops are grown in areas not victim to such a dearth of water. The leading pecan-producing state in the U.S. is Georgia, followed by Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma; they are also grown in Arizona, South Carolina and Hawaii; 99 percent of all hazelnuts grown in the U.S. come from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, known for its abundant rainfall.

4. Sunflower or safflower oil for palm oil
Cooking oils are tricky, most have drawbacks. Olive oil takes loads of water; canola and soybean crops are predominantly GMO; coconut trees produce less as they age, meaning more farmland will be needed as demand for coconut oil continues to rise. But of all, palm oil is perhaps the most offensive as its production is responsible for relentless deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests, which is driving orangutans to extinction and threatening many other species. We can't let our consumption of palm oil be the end of orangutans, we just can't. The best bets for cooking oil are likely from sunflower and safflower crops, which are generally GMO–free and not especially water-hungry. And they don't kill orangutans.

5. Legumes for meat (at least) once a week
The world is not going to transition to a plant-based diet overnight, but if everyone in the U.S. just skipped meat or cheese one day a week for a year it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

6. Organic, humane and/or grass-fed eggs and dairy over conventional eggs and dairy
From the “No Kidding” file: Eggs and dairy that are organic, humane and/or grass-fed have the least environmental impact. But a little reminder can’t hurt. The consumer watchdog organization, Environmental Working Group, notes that overall these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices ... and in some cases, grass-fed and pasture-raised products have also been shown to be more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination.

7. Whole wheat for white
Be it bread, pasta or what-have-you, opting for the whole-grain version is better for the planet than its refined cousin. While we know that whole grains are better for our health – a hard-to-miss fact that hovers at the top of most healthy eating tips – they’re also better for the planet in that the less processing a food undergoes, the lighter impact it has on resources.

8. Local berries for goji and acai berries
If there’s one thing I’ve been ranting about for years (which is funny because I’ve been ranting about plenty of things), it’s exotic superfoods. Just because a trendy berry is grown in the Himalayas doesn’t necessarily make it any more spectacular than berries grown in your own neck of the woods. Strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are brimming with magic and don’t require the resources used in transportation to get to your plate! See what berries and other antioxidant rich fruits are grown locally near you and opt for those over imported choices.