A Quick Guide to More Sustainable Eating

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Though we are The Nutrition Insider, it’s safe to assume that eating healthy and eating sustainably can go hand in hand.

It’s a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” kind of thing.

But sometimes eating sustainably can seem unattainable, self-flagellating, and more for the likes of Whole Foods and Erewhon shoppers.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, though! Eating sustainably doesn’t have to mean giving up on all the foods you love or shelling out half your paycheck for locally sourced red bell peppers.

So, in this article, we’re going to explain all the ways consumers like you can improve their eating habits to be more eco-friendly.

What is sustainability?

Before we dive in, let’s quickly discuss what defines sustainability, because—in all honesty—it can mean different things to different people.

In its simplest form, sustainability means using renewable resources or fewer resources in general to avoid depleting natural resources and to maintain the ecological balance on Earth. The ultimate goal of sustainability is to preserve these natural resources to sustain both current and future generations.

However, the United Nations has expanded this view of sustainability. In 2015, all the Member States adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve by 2030.1

Beyond the obvious sustainability goals such as developing sources of clean water, building sustainable cities and communities, and creating affordable, clean energy, there are also goals formed around eliminating poverty and hunger and achieving gender equality.1

As you can see, sustainability takes many different forms. One common thread among almost all of these goals, though, is the global food system.

What is sustainability when it comes to food?

Paradoxically, the food system is both a driver of and one of the industries most heavily impacted by global warming and climate change.

Per the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2019 about 22% of anthropogenic (human-generated) greenhouse gas emissions came from agricultural activities, forestry, and land use.2

However, this number does not account for emissions from the transportation of agricultural goods—also known as “food-miles.”

The number is likely significantly higher if you consider the global supply chain that transports animal feed, energy resources like coal, chemicals and fertilizer, food products for processing, and, finally, transportation to retailers.

If we examine agriculture’s impact under this broader scope, it’s estimated that the global food system may be responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused emissions.3 

As a result of decades of runaway emissions, climate change has emerged. Rising temperatures have led to an increase in floods, droughts, massive storm systems, and fluctuating temperatures that heavily impact agricultural yields, leading to major stressors on the food supply chain. 

Here are just a few examples of how climate change has directly impacted farmers and consumers:

So, how do we make our food system more sustainable? Well, this isn’t easy to answer as it’s one of the most complex problems we face as a species.

Unfortunately, we can’t just go back to farming within our borders. The way we’ve set up the  global food system means that farmers now rely on the global exchange of goods to earn a living. To dissolve this system entirely would lead to more problems than it would solve.

The best way to improve agriculture’s environmental impact requires a number of changes:

  • Creating net-zero carbon emissions systems
  • Reducing food waste
  • Maintain the health of soils to reduce inputs (fertilizer and chemicals)
  • Reducing water use
  • Switching energy to renewable sources
  • Simplifying logistics to reduce transportation emissions

Keep in mind, these are probably the most high priority solutions that would make the greatest impact.  But this is not an exhaustive list. We are also a long way from achieving this globally.

While this is a problem primarily for global leaders to solve, we as consumers can begin to make our own positive impact on the food system by making small changes in how we shop and eat.

10 Ways You Can Eat More Sustainably

Believe it or not, making incremental changes in how and what we choose to eat can move the needle on agriculture’s impact on climate change. Here’s some ways to add sustainable food practices into your life.

List of ten Ways You Can Eat More Sustainably

Reduce Food Waste

One of the biggest challenges in improving the efficiency of our food system and, in turn, food sustainability, is reducing food waste. 

Food waste occurs at every level of the production process—produce may be discarded if it doesn’t meet retail standards, spoilage can occur in transport, and retailers may throw out food that wasn’t sold and is past its expiration date.

Finally, even if consumers purchase it, we all know that food doesn’t always make it to our plates, languishing in our fridges until it wilts, molds, or expires. Even if it does get cooked, it may still end up uneaten!

And this is totally normal for the average person living in the US. In fact, Feeding America estimates Americans waste 92 billion pounds of food annually, about 38% of all the food in America.7

So what are some ways we as consumers can avoid contributing to this absolutely massive waste of food?

  1. Meal plan: Don’t walk into the grocery store without a plan for the week and a list. This will reduce the amount of food you buy, saving you money, and prevent purchases of food you won’t realistically have time or need to cook.
  2. Meal prep: Cook larger portions and eat the leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. This ensures perishable ingredients are used up while also providing us with a few extra meals for the subsequent days.
  3. Freeze perishables: If you’re not sure you’re going to cook ingredients or eat food you’ve already cooked, place in reusable tupperwares and freeze them.
  4. Always ask for a doggy bag: When eating out, always ask for a box to take your food home.
  5. Be creative: If you can’t freeze it, find creative ways to use up food that’s about to go bad. For example, ripe apples can be made into apple sauce; overly ripe bananas can be made into banana bread; wilting herbs can be diced, placed into ice cube trays with melted butter and frozen.

Eat Less Processed Foods

We know processed foods that contain refined grains, added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and high amounts of sodium are bad for us. 

However, it’s not just our bodies that pay for these choices, it’s the planet, too.

As opposed to whole foods that require minimal processing before heading to retailers, processed foods are considered “resource intensive”.

Why? More energy and water are required to create them, they need to be packaged into cardboard or plastic, the raw ingredients need to be transported to the facility, and then the product itself needs to be shipped to its final destination. 

All of this leads to higher levels of total carbon emissions than minimally processed foods like fruits and vegetables.

Additionally, the agricultural practices used to create the ingredients may derive from industrialized and intensive farms that rely on unsustainable land management practices, contribute to local water pollution, and have heavy chemical inputs.

So be kind to your body and the planet—avoid processed foods.

Eat More Plants

So what should you eat instead? More nutritious foods that are minimally processed—AKA, plants.

By incorporating a variety of plant foods into your diet such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, you can eat healthily and improve your dietary carbon footprint. 

Plant foods also typically require less total agricultural land and resources compared to processed or animal products, making them a more sustainable choice. 

Eating seasonal produce that’s grown locally (or at least in the country) can also mean that you are consuming fresher and more nutrient-rich foods that garnered fewer food-miles than. 

All in all, prioritizing healthy foods that are plant-based can improve your nutrition and reduce your overall environmental impact.

Eat Less Meat

You probably knew this was coming… Unfortunately, meat is categorically one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. 

To put this into perspective, animal-based food products account for about 57% of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.8 This includes the production of animal feed.

So, if you’re committed to eating more sustainably, this is probably one of the best things you can do to improve your environmental impact.

If you’re an avid meat eater there’s no need to go cold turkey (heh). You can start with one or two days a week or swap out the animal-based ingredient in a meal you would typically have with meat. 

For example, eggplant parmigiano instead of chicken or a black bean burger instead of a hamburger.

Pro-sustainability-tip: avoid fake meats like Impossible Burger. These are typically ultraprocessed foods that use all kinds of ingredients to achieve a “meat-like” texture. You’d be better off just eating something else.

Eating less meat would also benefit your own health since excess consumption of red meat, for example, is correlated with a higher risk of multiple diseases including heart disease and certain cancers.9

When you do eat red meat, look for grass-fed options. It is more expensive but worth it for the taste and nutrition. For a more affordable option, choose leaner meats such as poultry or fish.

Choose More Ethical Meat

While it would be better to eat less meat, we don’t expect the majority of people to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. 

So, for now, since we acknowledge that global meat consumption isn’t going anywhere and is only increasing in developing countries, the alternative is to instead purchase more ethically produced meat.

While it is hard to justify the cost at times, this can contribute to reduced carbon emissions.

Some more ethical options might be:

  • Grass-Fed Beef: Cows that are raised on a diet consisting mostly of grass have a lower environmental impact compared to those fed on grain for two reasons. One, the cows produce less methane and, two, less land is used to grow feed. The practice often leads to better animal welfare and a tastier end product.
  • Pasture-Raised Poultry: Chickens and turkeys that are allowed to roam freely and forage on bugs and small creatures tend to be healthier, are raised in more humane conditions, and, again, result in better eggs and meat.
  • Certified Organic Meat: Organic doesn’t guarantee something is necessarily healthier or safer but the standards often lead to better treatment of animals and prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones.
  • Wild-Caught Game: Hunting wild game can be a more sustainable option since one animal can feed several people for weeks at a time. This can also help keep wildlife populations under control and maintain an ecological balance. Many hunters would also argue that animals are better off passing this way than they would in nature. 
  • Wild-Caught Fish: Farmed fish are often sicker and less nutritious than wild-caught fish. They also have a bigger environmental and ecological impact on the local environment and may require more land use for hatching, growing feed, and processing. Wild-caught is the more environmentally friendly alternative.
  • Locally Sourced Meat: Purchasing meat from local farms reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation and supports local farmers and economies.

Sustainable Seafood Options

As mentioned in the previous section, buying wild-caught fish can be the more sustainable option.

But there are pros and cons—on the one hand, overfishing of wild fish can lead to depleted stocks which can impact the ecological balance of localized environments. 

On the other hand, farming fish can help meet global demand and reduce pressure on wild populations. However, it also introduces challenges like higher greenhouse gas emissions, pollution from fish waste, and the use of antibiotics.

To make more sustainable choices, we recommend you refer to Seafood Watch’s sustainable seafood guides, which are organized by species.10

These typically recommend both responsibly sourced wild and farmed options.

Support Sustainable Agricultural Practices

If you want to take your commitment to sustainability a step further look into the different types of sustainable agricultural practices.

These farming methods are and will be crucial for the health of our planet, animals, and the well-being of farming communities.

Keep an eye out for certifications such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and organic certifications when purchasing products. 

Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications support community development and farmer livelihoods by ensuring that farmers receive fair compensation and investing in local communities.


Like anything, these aren’t foolproof and some groups find ways to acquire these labels while skirting the rules. However, the majority of producers do follow the requirements, use fair labor practices, and are farming in a way that promotes environmental conservation.

Finally, look out for products that indicate they utilize or source ingredients from farms that practice regenerative agriculture. This will support farmers who use practices that enhance soil health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. 

Beware of Certain Ingredients

There are some foods that come with a price beyond what you pay financially, This could include higher carbon footprints, poor labor practices, and deforestation. 

Here are some examples of what to look out for:

  • Palm oil: Look out for palm oil in ingredient lists. Palm oil production, particularly in Brazil, usually entails the destruction of many acres of rainforest and puts animals at risk of becoming endangered, such as the orangutan.
  • Cocoa: Cocoa farming can lead to deforestation to make room for farms. The industry is also rife with exploitation of workers, including modern day slavery and child labor. Look for rainforest alliance and fair trade labels.
  • Coffee: Intensive coffee farming practices leads to sub-par quality coffee and also leads to degraded soils and loss of biodiversity. Farmers are also often exploited by corporations that pay them very little and sell coffee at a massive markup. Look for Fair Trade coffee when possible.
  • Sugar: Sugar production can have severe environmental consequences. This can include degradation of natural habitats, high water use, agrochemical use, fertilizer run-off, and water and air pollution. Look for sustainable fair-trade certified or organic sugar and alternatives like coconut or agave nectar.

Shop Local

Purchasing food from local farms is one of the best ways to shop more sustainably, primarily  since you are reducing the number of food-miles between the farm and yourself. 

As a result, you’ll also eat fresher, more nutritious food, and support local farmers.

You can shop at your nearest farmers’ market to access these local foods but there may be  other, cheaper options.

You can also join a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) group, which is a program that connects consumers directly with local farmers. Once you join, you’ll regularly receive a box of food produced by a single farmer.

Alternatively, you can join a Co-Op which is essentially the same type of program but gathers food from a collective of different farmers.

These may be hard to come by in areas of the US but it’s worth looking into if you’re looking for ways to reduce your impact.

Start Growing Your Own Food

Sometimes the best way to close the distance between you and your food is to grow it yourself! 

This can be a tough hobby to take on and requires a bit of research but you’ll be greatly rewarded. Before you know it you’ll have beautiful and delicious food grown directly in your backyard.

You also have the benefit of knowing exactly what was used to grow it and will likely gain an appreciation for how hard farmers work to grow our food.

If you don’t have the space, start a small herb garden that can live on your kitchen table or countertop. Every little bit helps!

FAQs

What is the most inefficient food source?

Inefficient food sources are those with high levels of food waste, food-miles, and the livestock industry. These food sources typically have a large environmental footprint, making them less sustainable. These typically include processed foods, foods that are shipped internationally, and meat products, particularly industrial farming operations.

How do I  eat sustainably without being vegan?

You can absolutely eat sustainably without being vegan! It may just cost you a bit more if you want to eat the same amount of meat you normally do. To compensate for the price, you can reduce your consumption of meat and animal products and lean on more plant proteins such as lentils, beans, and soy products.

Which diet is typically more sustainable and the healthiest?

A diet rich in plant-based foods is typically more sustainable and healthy. These foods generally require fewer resources to produce and have lower environmental impacts.

How does food production impact the environment?

Food production impacts the environment through global greenhouse gas emissions created by food systems. This is from a combination of factors such as methane production from cows (yes, cow farts), farming machinery, carbon emissions from food transportation, and energy use when processing foods. Farming also has impacts on the environment from water use, pollution, soil degradation, deforestation, just to name a few.

Are there any government regulations or policies related to sustainable food production?

Yes, there are government regulations and policies related to sustainable food production that address food waste, food safety, and environmental protection. Agencies like the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) play a key role in enforcing these regulations.

What are some misconceptions about sustainable eating?

A common misconception about sustainable eating is that sustainable diets are boring or expensive. However, sustainable eating can be diverse, delicious, and affordable when you focus on seasonal, locally-sourced, and plant-based foods.

  1. THE 17 GOALS | Sustainable Development. (n.d.). https://sdgs.un.org/goals 
  2. Global Greenhouse Gas Overview | US EPA. (2024, April 11). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-overview
  3. Tandon, A. (2021, March 9). Food systems responsible for ‘one third’ of human-caused emissions. Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/food-systems-responsible-for-one-third-of-human-caused-emissions/
  4. Morales, C. (2024, May 9). Another Sriracha shortage? Huy Fong foods halts production. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/09/dining/huy-fong-sriracha-shortage.html
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  6. Hanrahan, R. (2024, May 16). Brazil floods likely to affect future crop seasons. Farm Policy News. https://farmpolicynews.illinois.edu/2024/05/brazil-floods-likely-to-effect-future-crop-seasons/
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  8. Xu, X., Sharma, P., Shu, S., Lin, T., Ciais, P., Tubiello, F. N., Smith, P., Campbell, N., & Jain, A. K. (2021). Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. Nature Food, 2(9), 724–732. https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00358-x
  9. Giromini, C., & Givens, D. I. (2022). Benefits and Risks Associated with Meat Consumption during Key Life Processes and in Relation to the Risk of Chronic Diseases. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 11(14), 2063. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11142063
  10. Seafood guides | Recommendations | Seafood Watch. (n.d.). https://www.seafoodwatch.org/recommendations/download-consumer-guides



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