5 Satisfying Food Swaps to Help the Planet

Trim your carbon footprint with these super simple food choices.

Delicious looking vegetable burger

Getty Images / Design by Josh Seong

In this edition of Small Acts, Big Impact we look at some easy swaps to help make your food choices more sustainable.

Most people eat three meals a day. What they choose to eat for those meals has a significant impact on the Earth because it drives demand for crops, livestock, land conversion, water, and energy. Those daily choices may seem insignificant, but they add up over time and across a large population. 

You can make a difference by choosing more eco-friendly foods and incorporating them into your diet periodically. The more you do it, the easier it becomes — and the bigger a difference you'll make. Here are some ideas to get started.

Small Act: Eat Beans Instead of Meat Once a Week

Swapping out meat for plant-based ingredients in a single meal each week will slim down your carbon footprint. Use beans (or lentils, tofu, grains, nuts, or faux meat alternatives) instead to make a satisfying and flavor-packed meal.

Big Impact

Livestock accounts for nearly 15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. Cattle, in particular, require significant amounts of feed that drive deforestation. If everyone in the United States skipped meat and cheese for one day a week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road — or not driving 91 billion miles. If you're part of a four-person household, swapping out meat once a week is equivalent to taking your car off the road for five weeks.

Small Act: Rethink Your Seafood

If you eat fish, choosing smaller ones — like herring, anchovies, squid, sardines, and mackerel — is better than eating big ones like tuna and salmon (farmed or wild). Go for bivalves (oyster, mussels, clams), rather than shrimp.

Big Impact

Smaller fish tend to be caught in nets that aren't dragged on the ocean floor, which makes them less destructive. There is reduced bioaccumulation of chemicals in their bodies because they're at the bottom of the food chain, which makes them healthier. Bivalves are extremely carbon-light, they don't require feed, and they filter the water as they grow. Paul Greenberg, a fisheries expert and author of "The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint," says this puts some bivalves on par with vegetables when it comes to their carbon footprint – impressive!

Small Act: Eat Vegan Until Dinnertime

By avoiding animal products during the day, you can reap the carbon savings associated with veganism without missing out on the biggest meal of the day. This is also known as the "vegan before 6" (or VB6) diet.

Big Impact

Reducing consumption of animal products is one of the most effective ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions, ranked #4 on Project Drawdown's list of climate solutions. According to Jonathan Safran Foer in "We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast," not eating animal products for breakfast and lunch would reduce your carbon footprint to less than that of a full-time vegetarian and save 1.3 metric tons per year.

Small Act: Eat More Broccoli Than Asparagus

Eating a lot of vegetables is the greenest way to go, in more ways than one. But even among vegetables, there are some choices that are better than others. While asparagus is lovely in moderation, it is, alas, a water hog. And in fact, one study found that asparagus has the highest environmental impacts across most of the 19 impact categories that the researchers considered.

Big Impact

While broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts all need around 34 gallons of water per pound to grow, asparagus requires 258 gallons of water per pound! Eating broccoli rather than asparagus once a month would trim 2,700 gallons of water off your annual water footprint. (But that's still just a drop in the bucket compared to beef, which needs 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound.)

Small Act: Switch to Oat Milk in Your Coffee

Oat milk is beloved by baristas worldwide, thanks to its similarities to cow's milk. It has a rich, creamy taste and can be frothed into foam for lattes and cappuccinos.

Big Impact

Adding dairy milk to coffee nearly doubles its carbon footprint, from 0.28 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for a single espresso to 0.55 kilograms of CO2e for a latte. If you switch to plant-based milk, the average emissions are around half that of dairy milk. Almond milk has the smallest carbon footprint (0.14 kilograms CO2e), but uses excessive amounts of water and pesticides; oat milk is the second-best option for carbon (0.18 kilograms CO2e), but with its small land-use impacts and water inputs it is our top choice – plus, it behaves more like dairy milk when added to coffee. 

View Article Sources
  1. Gerber, P.J., et al. "Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013.

  2. "Reducing Your Footprint." Environmental Working Group.

  3. "Plant-Rich Diets." Project Drawdown.

  4. Frankowska, Angelina, et al. "Environmental Impacts of Vegetables Consumption in The UK." Science of the Total Environment, vol. 682, 2019, pp. 80-105, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.04.424

  5. Dunne, Daisy. "Interactive: What is the climate impact of eating meat and dairy?" Carbon Brief.