Diets Rarely Work. And Carbon Diets Won’t Either.

Lessons from a dietitian for the environmental movement.

A selection of fresh organic produce in a plastic free reusable shopping bag on a zero waste kitchen worktop.

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My wife Jenni is a registered dietitian who recently started her own practice. She has talked a lot about the difference between dieting and making a lifestyle change. As part of that effort, she has cautioned against excessive adherence to a specific set of do's and don’ts, or one-size-fits-all prescriptions for supposedly healthier eating: “We believe that food should be celebrated as a source of nourishment, abundance, and joy. And we believe that the best way to do that is through developing an approach that’s tailored to each patient’s unique circumstances, and that views balanced, healthier eating as a lifelong journey.”

Instead, what Jenni and her business partners recommend is a more tailored approach that takes into account likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations, challenges and temptations, and also the environment in which each of us is making our food and lifestyle choices. It’s less important, after all, to avoid every single ounce of sugar or unpronounceable industrial ingredient, and more important to assess why we never have time to truly relax, why our sleep patterns are disrupted, or why we’re always grabbing lunch on the go and are therefore always settling for salty, processed fast foods. 

It occurs to me that there are lessons here for the environmental movement, and specifically for moving us beyond the ongoing and incessant twitter debates around whether it is lifestyle change or systems change that really matters. My own view is that it’s definitely a case of "both/and," but more specifically that we need to rethink why we do what we do in our own lives, and how we can encourage others along the way. 

Just as obsessing over calorie counting can become distracting — and difficult to sustain — I’m not convinced that most of us can or should spend our time spreadsheeting every aspect of our carbon-emitting lifestyles. Instead, I think we need to start by asking ourselves some fundamental questions: 

  • What are we actually trying to achieve?
  • What are our particular strengths and weaknesses, and how can we harness them?
  • How can we make changes to our own lives and—ideally—the community around us to make more desirable behaviors the default? 

In the case of diets versus lifestyle change, one of the core things that folks need to get clear on is what their real motivations are. Are they trying to lose weight? And if they are, are they doing it for its own sake, or is their real goal to feel better, or be able to be more physically active? The end result may or may not be the same — but understanding the motivation can help people to both prioritize and sustain their efforts. 

In a similar vein, it always helps me to understand that my end goal is not to reduce my own carbon footprint down to zero. Instead, it’s to play a meaningful role in getting our society-wide footprint down to zero.

Yes, one of the ways I do that is by reducing how much I drive or choosing more plant-based meals, as both of these efforts send signals out in the world — signals which do have an impact on the systems and structures around us. But remembering my end goal allows me to spend more time and energy on maximizing my positive impact — for example through advocacy, or workplace sustainability efforts — and less time sweating about the small frequent ways that I fall short of the "perfect" green lifestyle.
The other lesson that’s transferable here is that we need to focus less on our behaviors and choices, and more on what influences those choices in the first place. It might be tempting to berate myself (or others) for driving too much. And yet that energy would be better spent on a personal level deciding if I could live downtown, or even simply organizing my house so my bike is more accessible.

The same goes on a societal level: Rather than criticizing others for buying a Hummer (electric or otherwise), we should be talking about the road conditions that created a my-car-is-bigger-than-your-car arms race, and we should be seeking opportunities to deescalate. 

Ultimately, most of us could benefit from eating healthier. Similarly, the world would certainly benefit if we emit less carbon. In both cases, however, we can’t simply wish our way to "better" behaviors or achieve them through sheer willpower alone. Instead, we need to understand why we do what we do when we do it, and then change the circumstances so the behaviors take care of themselves.