Registered dietitians are well aware of the health implications of our current dietary lifestyle, but there is another “energy crisis” brewing in our food system as well—a steady march towards an American diet that is denser in fossil fuel than most nutrients. The modern food system contributes about 19 percent of the total greenhouse gas produced in the U.S. each year. Bringing an inexpensive fast-food burger, a low-carb frozen dinner or even organic asparagus from Argentina to your plate requires a steady stream of fossil fuel. And with rising fuel and food costs, increased awareness of global sustainability and possible carbon emission legislation, these issues are beginning to reach across the entire spectrum of our profession, presenting a fantastic opportunity for RDs everywhere.
“Eating healthier and eating greener are not two separate approaches to eating, but rather approaches that go hand-in-hand,” says Jackie Newgent, RD, author of the upcoming Big Green Cookbook: Hundreds of Planet-Pleasing Recipes and Tips for a Luscious, Low-Carbon Lifestyle (Wiley, April 2009).
While there are exceptions, intersections of planetary and personal health include:
Eat a diet that is abundant in plant foods, with smaller amounts of meat.
According to a 2006 report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, livestock—primarily cattle—accounts for approximately 18 percent of total GHG emissions worldwide. While beef can certainly still be a delicious part of an eco-friendly diet, a 2008 study reported that substituting red meat with vegetables, chicken or eggs one day a week will trim more carbon from your diet than buying all local foods. This gives RDs an opportunity to point out yet another benefit of bringing consumption of these foods, at the very least, into the USDA guideline range or the Mediterranean Pyramid range of a couple of times a month.
Keep portions in check.
Here is an easy but significant and immediate overlap with an RD’s nutrition message: Watching portions will help you keep your waste and your waistline in check. “One of the best ways to reduce the effect of your diet on climate change is to not waste food,” says Katherine Kwon, MS, RD, communications project manager at Bon Appétit Management Company. “When you waste food, you waste the energy used to grow, transport and cook it. In addition, when food waste is sent to landfills instead of being composted, it releases methane—a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”
Choose foods in a natural state.
One reason Americans have such big “carbon feet” is because we rely heavily on packaged and processed foods, which take basic foods and add many more steps (processing, refining, packaging, transporting, storing) which require fossil fuel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates approximately 30 percent of landfill content is packaging waste, much of which comes from foods.
RDs are familiar with the weight challenges that can come from regularly drinking liquid calories, but it also turns out liquids are one of the heaviest items to ship—not to mention the bottles, cans and other packaging left over after use.
Buy local and seasonal produce to the extent possible.
While not a cure-all for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there can be numerous other benefits to buying local, seasonal produce. “Eating produce that is in season provides the very balance and variety that scientists and nutritionists advocate for,” says Amanda Archibald, RD, founder of Field to Plate, “and is one of the best nutrient values per bite of food—and usually at a lower cost.”
Use the kitchen more, drive-thru less.
RDs know that preparing our own food gives us more control over calories, portion sizes and nutrient content than when dining on the run. But making meals at home is also a greener strategy by reducing food waste, packaging and all of the energy used to operate a restaurant.
Eating green can save you green.
The best part of swapping a couple of meat meals for vegetarian ones, saving leftovers, reducing packaging waste and cooking at home is that habits like these will also trim your food costs and save green while you “go green”—a key selling point that resonates with clients regardless of their environmental leanings. In fact, many clients and consumers are likely already making greener switches because it makes financial sense, such as filtering tap water or brewing coffee at home instead of buying bottled water or designer coffee drinks, or limiting the use of highly packaged, single-serving items because the cost per unit is often significantly higher.