Healthy vs unhealthy food

Healthy and unhealthy foods (© -

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Adopting simple dietary changes not only enhances your personal health but also lowers your carbon footprint, a new study explains. By opting for alternatives, such as choosing chicken over beef or drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk, individuals could reduce their average food-related carbon footprint by 35 percent. A team from Tulane University says this also has the benefit of improving their diet’s nutritional value as well.

The researchers are aiming to motivate more people to embrace climate-friendly eating practices, particularly since food production accounts for 25 to 33 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“It can be as simple as ordering a chicken burrito instead of a beef burrito when you go out to eat,” says a senior author of the study, Professor Diego Rose from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in a media release. “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.”

The research involved analyzing dietary data from over 7,700 Americans. It pinpointed commonly consumed foods with the highest climate impact and proposed replacing them with nutritionally similar, yet lower-emission alternatives.

Significant emission reductions were noted, particularly in mixed dishes, such as burritos and pasta, where it’s relatively straightforward to substitute a lower-impact protein for beef.

Pan seared chicken breasts
Pan seared chicken breasts (Photo by Julia Filirovska on Pexels)

“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,” explains the study’s lead author, Dr. Anna Grummon, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy at Stanford University.

While these alternatives are not a comprehensive solution for achieving climate or health objectives, the research team emphasizes the potential large impact of small changes.

“There is overlap between sustainable diets and healthy diets,” Dr. Grummon adds. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Food.

Why does eating meat affect carbon emissions?

Food production accounts for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Animal-based foods, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, generally have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods.

There are several reasons for this. First, raising animals for food requires a lot of land and resources. For example, estimates show it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.

Second, livestock production produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane is released from the digestive systems of ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep, and from manure.

Third, the transportation and processing of animal products also contribute to their carbon footprint. For example, meat is often transported long distances from where it is raised to where it is consumed, which requires fuel.

South West News Service writer Ellie McDonald contributed to this report.

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1 Comment

  1. Anand Gandharva says:

    Excellent perspective. Humanity is sawing off the branch we are sitting on: individual carbon footprints need to be charged in product prices by size in order to give consumers incentives. Many consumers do not worry about ideology, but are cost aware. Income of carbon footprints can fund jobs in Earth Repair. Improve the Paris Climate Agreement: right now Net Zero is only for producers and leaves consumers unaccountable. This research also does not mention that humanity is co-dependent on healthy environments, economic motivation to guide change. At 8 billion consumers, stimulated to take more and more, we have reached Earth holding capacity and need to start investing more in restoring environments: Earth Care jobs to raise productivity!