What is a Sustainable Eating Style?

Learn what a sustainable eating style is with these expert tips from sustainable nutrition expert, Sharon Palmer.

More and more people are thinking about the power of their fork in reducing their impact on the planet. And it’s a good thing, as your eating style can be the most impactful thing you do over your lifetime when it comes to your impact on your environment. Your food choices every day carry with them their environmental footprints, including carbon, water, and pollution. You can limit those impacts by making better, more mindful food choices. Research shows that different diet patterns have widely differing impacts on environmental health. You can eat a diet with lower contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, deforestation, eutrophication (nutrient run-off into bodies of water that create dead zones), pesticide use, and water use. The good news is that most people think about sustainability when they make choices in the supermarket. They want to protect the planet with their eating style.

However, research shows that most people don’t know how to eat a sustainable diet. I get questions all the time on what a sustainable eating style really looks like. That’s why I’m answering your top questions today on how you can make powerful changes with your plate!

What is a Sustainable Eating Style?

A Farm in Ojai Valley

Question: What is a sustainable eating style?

Sharon Answer: It’s a way of eating that takes care of people, animals, and the planet. It’s a style of eating that makes sure that there is an abundant supply of healthy food for all people, based on their own cultural food preferences, both now and in the future. And it means that food is produced in a way that doesn’t degrade our natural resources, such as water, soil and air. It also protects our wildlife. Can you imagine a planet with no more wildlife—no more wild birds, marine creatures, mammals? And no more forests? That’s why it’s important to support a food system that protects our big beautiful planet.

Lettuce farm in Monterey County, California

Question: Why is it important to be concerned about how our eating style impacts the planet?

Sharon Answer: The way you eat is the single most significant thing you can do in your lifetime, to not only protect your own health, but to protect the health of Mother Earth. It’s even more important than the car you drive. We need to make a radical change today in order to keep up with the food needs of our growing population set to hit 10 billion by 2050, while preserving the planet’s natural resources and capping climate change. Agriculture makes a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions, which can lead to global warming. If we don’t act now, we are leaving a degraded planet for our children.

Farm in Sonoma County, California

Question: How has agriculture and our diets changed over the years?

Sharon Answer: My parents both grew up on farms during World War II and the Depression. My mom lived on a farm in Arkansas and my dad lived on a farm in Minnesota. Yet they were similar farming systems. They both had a few cows—no more than about 10. The milk from the cows was sold in the nearby town, and that provided the main supply of income for the family. The cows grazed on pasture and were only in the barn during the very coldest of periods where their diets were supplemented with grains grown on the farm. There were chickens that roamed the farm, and supplemented the diet. The only form of nutrients for the field were from the cow and chicken manure and compost from the crop materials, such as stalks and leaves. Even in Minnesota, the vegetable garden was packed with every imaginable plant, which was later preserved to make it through the long cold winters. On my mom’s farm—where there was a milder climate—they grew everything imaginable: beans, peas, green beans, squash, berries, root vegetables, sorghum, peanuts. They saved the seeds back each year to replant crops for the following year. There were no pesticides applied—my mom says the only form of pest control were “4 kids and a bucket”. They literally picked the bugs off the plants and threw them in a bucket, which later fed the chickens. The fields were rotated to keep pests away and to nourish the soil. Everything they ate came from the farm. The diet was a plant-based diet out of necessity—though they certainly didn’t call it that. A typical day in my mom’s dining table was a pot of black-eyed peas, foraged greens, cornbread, and whatever vegetable was available in the garden.

Ladybug on organic greens sold at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.

Times have changed drastically since WWII. Now agriculture has become modernized and there is very little diversity—large single crops called monoculture means that more pests are attracted to crops, and thus pesticides are applied to target the pests. This means that the soil microbiome is harmed. Yes, healthy soil has a thriving population of diverse microorganisms with 40,000 species per gram of soil! In addition, pesticides get into waterways, and hurt good bugs: predator bugs and butterflies, as well as birds and other wildlife. And we use synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels which get into waterways and create dead zones. When we concentrate large amounts of animals on the land, their manure accumulates and causes water and soil pollution, as well.

A confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) in California

Question: How does eating so much meat threaten the environment?

Sharon Answer: American is a wealthy nation, and we eat three times the global rate of meat. Ruminants—such as cows and lamb—produce a great deal of methane. That’s one big greenhouse gas. In addition, today’s agriculture means we grow crops to feed animals over their lifetime, which takes up a lot of land, water, and fossil fuels to produce. It’s much more efficient to cut out the middle man and eat the plants directly. That’s why studies show that plant-based diets can cut your carbon footprint by up to 42%.

Grow some of your own food to reduce your environmental footprint.

Question: How can you eat to reduce your eco-impact?

Sharon Answer:

I have 5 main tips for eating a sustainable diet:

  1. Eat a more plant-based diet. Cut your meat intake dramatically-especially red meat. Try Meatless Monday, put 75% plants on your plate, or go flexitarian.
  2. Trim food waste. Up to 40% of the food that is grown ends up in the trash. The environmental impact of this waste is dramatic. Pack up your leftovers, don’t overshop, make sure you are using everything in your refrigerator before it goes bad, know that best buy dates are quality dates, not safety dates. Get rid of the perfection principal when you choose foods. Avoid over consumption.
  3. Eat healthful foods. If you purchase highly processed junk foods, you are supporting a system of agriculture that uses up land, resources, and produces GHGE just to cosnume foods that harm health. That is the opposite of sustainability.
  4. Eat more locally. Grow some of your own food.
  5. Reduce packaging, such as plastics. Eat more foods that come without packages.

For other tips on eating a sustainable diet, check out the following:

Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Eating
7 Steps to Go Plant-Based
4 Ways to Eat for the Environment

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