Change Your Diet, Change the World: A Recipe for Eco-Friendly Eating

As the human population continues to skyrocket and conditions on planet Earth get (proportionally) more troubled, we have heard about a lot of ways we can change our lifestyles to lessen our impact on the biosphere. Yes, we know that changing our bulbs to CFLs is great; we know that driving hybrids is great; we know that reducing, reusing, and recycling are all great. And they surely are!

However, one essential aspect of our human lives that often does not receive much attention is our diets. This is rather shocking, too, because whatever else happens, whatever we stick in our lamps or drive, we always need to feed. And as more and more of us pop up on the planet, Mother Earth is going to have a lot of hungry human mouths to feed.

Your dietary habits–what, where, and even how you eat–are profoundly important when it comes to sustainable living. I am not an accredited expert on economics, agriculture, or nutrition, but I have done more than my fair share of research on these and other topics (especially the latter two) related to sustainable food choices. In what follows, then, I share some ingredients I have come across in a recipe for an eco-friendly diet.

  1. Eat simply. Packaged foods that have ingredients lists spanning several sides of the box, with words you cannot pronounce and substances you never thought could exist, are obviously not “natural” and can do funky things to your body. Plus, the more things in your Frankenfood, the more resources required. Simple eating gives your digestion an easier task and reduces your exposure to potential toxins, too, which ultimately helps keep you healthy.
  2. Choose organic. Although an organic label does not guarantee good farming or business practices by the company/producer, you can at least be sure that an organic product will have required less chemicals and toxins in order to go from field to table. Besides reducing pollution going into the biosphere, you also reduce pollution going into yourself with organic foods.
  3. Buy local. Shipping foods across vast distances has tremendous costs for the environment–from fuels required by the vehicles (typically refrigerated) to pollution. You may love strawberries in January, but if you live in New York, they just are not sustainable! Buying local goods reduces the miles your food has to travel, plus it supports the local economy. Or if you cannot find local products, then at least try to choose domestic over imported–say, an apple from Washington instead of New Zealand.
  4. Go vegetarian or vegan. Believe it or not, about one third (35%) of the world’s grain crops, as well as soy, go not to feed humans directly but to feed livestock–usually cattle, whether for dairy or meat or both.1 These animals also take heavy tolls on water and land. Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles reduce the amount of livestock and so reduce the amount of these resources we consume…by proxy. And whatever hype you hear to the contrary (from the media and even doctors), humans can live perfectly health lives without animal products. In most normal cases, we do not need large amounts of (animal) protein; we do not even need to eat a “complete” protein in each meal: new research shows that the body stores proteins throughout the day, so a varied vegetal diet can provide all the proteins you need, and supplements of vitamins D and B-12 not from animals can make pick up the slack for vegans. Baby cows need cow’s milk but humans do not; after all, most of that beloved vitamin D and calcium are synthetic concoctions added in (along with all the hormones pumped into the poor cows). Additionally, vegetarian/vegan lifestyles reduce the suffering these animals must endure, whether or not they are ultimately killed for consumption. A healthy diet can help mitigate the risk of lifestyle diseases, and a vegan diet can also help improve your skin.
  5. Try some “alternative” foods. Yes, wheat bread, tofu, and popcorn may be staples of modern diets, but some of the staples we eat are not really that good for the planet. For example, corn (which is in EVERYTHING–think of corn syrup by itself–and is botanically a grain) sucks nitrogen out of the soil like mad and so usually requires tons of (chemical) fertilizers; it is also usually grown as a monoculture, which only increases the toll it takes on the soil (and increases the need for pesticides!). Soy and wheat are other modern mainstays, but they are also hard on the soil for similar reasons. You can get away from these resource-hungry food crops by choosing other, lesser known, less demanding foods. Some examples of grains that are easy on the Earth include millet (the yellow stuff you find in bird food; it is actually very good for us, too…I love it!), quinoa, and buckwheat. Also helpful are plants that have many edible parts: pumpkins, for example, have edible fruits, leaves, and even flowers; and dandelions have edible leaves, roots good for tea, and flowers used for wine.
  6. Grow it yourself. Having your own vegetable garden, maybe even with other fun stuff like sunflowers and fruit bushes or trees, is a priceless way to enjoy nature and feed yourself. A productive little plot is the acme of going local and, if you go organic, then it is also supremely healthy for you and the Earth (and the critters that will be feasting along with you!). You can save money on grocery expenses, learn about how food grows and nature works, and fill your belly with food that is made more nutritious by the love and care you bring to your gardening.
  7. Make it yourself. No matter how hectic your schedule, you can easily plan ahead and “brown bag” wherever you go. When you make your own meals and snacks, you can prepare healthier meals, reduce packaging, and save money. For instance, just pop a salad and a bagel in a big dish for lunch, or for a snack take some dried fruit and nuts. If you plan ahead and give up an addiction to “convenience,” you will find it easy to be your own Emeril Lagasse or Julia Childs…and remember June Cleaver sending the Beaver off with his nice little bag of lunch???
  8. Give thanks. Whether you say “grace” or simply pause to reflect on the things that make possible your act of eating, taking a moment to thank the Earth and its collaborators for the food nourishing you is a great way to cultivate respect for the planet and make eating holistically healthier. Food is a blessing, and blessing your food only increases your mindfulness of how all life is interconnected and interdependent.

These are just some ingredients you can include in your own recipe for a sustainable, eco-friendly diet. Get creative, be adventurous, add your own spices, and find ways to change from a “modern” diet to a sustainable diet where you can. Whatever other sacrifices going green may entail, you can still eat, drink, and be merry…if you educate yourself and dine with heart! Yummy, indeed!

Image credit: Jeremy Keith via Wikimedia Commons.
1. “Grain Harvest Sets Record, but Supplies Still Tight.” WorldWatchInstitute.org. World Watch Institute. 2008. 26 August 2008 <http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5540>.

What other tips do you know for an eco-friendly diet? What changes have you made for personal and planetary health?

  1. Robin


    Great advice. In the past year I have incorporated all of this into my family’s life (except the vegetarian – but I have added some meatless meals to the mix and stopped forcing my six year old to eat a bunch of meat he doesn’t want.)

    The most surprising thing of all has been that while I spend more time and energy on preparing meals and thinking about food, I enjoy doing so much more than when I was opening up box of family size lasagna and sticking it in microwave. Easy but unsatisfying.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Robin, I commend and thank you for taking all that time & energy to create healthier homemade meals for your family.

    Your mention of the “enjoyment factor” of doing it yourself is so true. Yes, restaurant food may taste yummy and exotic, but it cannot compete with the love and positive “vibrations” that go into food you make yourself…and so increase its holistic nutrition exponentially. This may sound funky and new-agey, but it is really true. Besides that, the time & energy spent turn into dollars & cents you save!

  3. Cat

    A vegetarian myself, I couldn’t agree more. I would also add that if you can’t/don’t want to eliminate meat completely, try just having it less. Imagine if Americans didn’t eat bacon and eggs at breakfast, a turkey sandwich at lunch, and then meat lasagna for dinner… Oh the possibilities. Also, if you’re going to go veggie, try to avoid always going the frozen-meat-substitute route. These are fine every once in a while, but remember all the energy it takes to transport and produce all that frozen food!

  4. Foodwitch

    Fabtastic article! I have been trying to help others follow this exact advice by creating healthy meals you can make in minutes that don’t cost the earth. The idea being that by making the recipes quick and easy, you become a meat reducer as veggies are quicker to cook; you learn how simple it is to throw homemade sauces together that taste divine and you realise you’ve done all this without creating any waste and it was cheaper too. Being green is tastier, healthier, cheaper, quicker and more satisfying – what more does a person need? New free recipes are published every week at http://www.foodwitch.com

  5. Mary

    I totally agree!
    I started a garden in my backyard last year I can’t believe the amount of food I am already getting from it. It taste so much better to me because I grew it. Utter satisfaction!
    If you don’t think you can grow something yourself, you are wrong. You can always make room for a tomato plant in a container or some herbs on the windowsill.

  6. Chisti

    Great article. I would add: No SOY, as it is increasingly hard to find non- GMO soy beans that haven’t been tainted by Monsanto. Also, I would add that cutting down on corn and dairy is essential, not only because of the impact on the soil, but because of the inflated subsidies. One other thing, though I am vegetarian, I would suggest that meat and dairy be sourced at a Biodynamic farm, which will most likely be in a sustainable ecovillage, leaving no footprint. Thanks!

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