Sustainability and “sustainable systems” have become buzzwords—and for a good reason. They’re often discussed in conjunction with climate change, a real issue facing the entire world.
Data shows 2021 was the sixth warmest year on record. Scientists say the warming temperature intensifies rainfall and changes habitats for plants and animals—including people.
The United Nations estimates that climate-related disasters force about 20 million people worldwide from their homes.
Sustainable (or electric) cars and eco-denim have all become buzzy in the auto and fashion industries. In the dining and wellness sectors, sustainable food has become a common refrain. What, exactly, does that mean?
“By definition, sustainable eating refers to diets with little environmental impacts, improve food security and nutrient density, and add to the health of present and future generations,” says Trista Best, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.
It sounds like a great idea — and plenty of data suggests that sustainable habits, particularly dietary, can have an impact. For instance, food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse emissions,
If we, as individuals, can choose food that doesn’t contribute as much to it, it can make an impact. But it’s not that simple — there are systems at play.
“As nice as it would be to simply define sustainable eating as eating well for the planet, the reality is that it’s a variable and nuanced term depending on who you’re talking to and the circumstances at play,” says Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietician of Street Smart Nutrition.
Still, knowing about these systems can help people make informed decisions, such as purchasing products from sustainable brands at the grocery store.
Below, Harbstreet and others explain sustainable eating, plus suggestions for implementing sustainable habits into your diet in realistic ways.
Food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse emissions.
—Crippa M. (2021). Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.
“Sustainable eating is simply a dietary pattern that considers both the body and the environmental impacts,” Best says. “This pattern seeks the least negative effects on both and food sources that improve health and the environment when able.”
Heather White, environmental science expert activist, author, and founder of the nonprofit One Green Thing, explains that sustainable eating involves the evidence-based idea that how our food is grown and what we consume impacts the environment.
“A key tenant of ecology is that everything is connected — our water, air, food, soil, and our personal health,” White says.
For example, a study published in 2022 analyzed greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. from 2003 to 2018. Their research suggests that a reduction in beef consumption accounted for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
But so much of it goes beyond individual choices and Mother Nature’s beef with beef. Agricultural practices play a role in our ecosystems — it’s ecology.
White says some of these practices include:
- chemicals and fertilizers
- transportation of food, such as traveling long distances in carbon-emitting vehicles
- food packaging
- water use
“From an ecological and agricultural standpoint, these numbers are unsustainable and will only grow if something isn’t done to reverse them,” Best says.
Sustainable eating involves the evidence-based idea that how our food is grown and what we consume impacts the environment.
—Heather White, founder of One Green Thing
Research and experts share that sustainable eating habits might:
- reduce environmental impacts of food, notably greenhouse gas emission
- improve individual health outcomes
- Influence agricultural practices
- empower consumers
Recent research shines a light. A 2022 study of 57,000 food products sold in the United Kingdom and Ireland indicated that lamb and beef had the most significant environmental impacts, while produce and grains had the lowest impact.
A 2020 review of 18 studies indicated that sustainable diets led to positive health outcomes for people and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The research did not indicate a reduction in water use. A
Plant-based diets are often at the center of sustainable eating habits. Though vegetables have to get transported, a 2014 study suggests that vegetarians and vegans contributed half as many dietary emissions as individuals who ate animal protein.
- energy metabolism
Besides health outcomes — for people and the environment — experts share that sustainable eating habits can feel empowering and make a statement.
“[Benefits] include greater consciousness and awareness of where food comes from, which can lead to feeling more confident and empowered about food choices,” Harbstreet says. “Sustainable eating can also feel better aligned with our personal values, allowing us to embody what’s most important to us by way of what we eat.”
“The benefit of sustainable eating is that you are voting with your wallet,” White says, referring to the more environmentally-friendly practice of these products.
“Sustainable eating can feel better aligned with our personal values, allowing us to embody what’s most important to us by way of what we eat.”
—Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D.
You can’t completely overhaul the agricultural system overnight, but you can make small tweaks to your eating habits. If you’re looking for how to eat sustainably on a budget, there’s good news: Not every food habit change comes with a hefty price tag. Experts shared ways to implement sustainable food practices at home.
Eat more plant-based foods
The research indicates that diets rich in plant-based are better for the environment and can improve health outcomes, too.
“Certain foods like beef and lamb take a lot of carbon to create,” White says.
But she says you don’t have to become vegetarian or vegan. She suggests adopting a plant-based diet once per week, such as on Meatless Monday.
Meal plan and prep
“Use up the perishable items first before moving on to the more shelf-stable ones,” Katie Krejci, MS, RD, LD, IFNCP, a registered dietician.
As you’re prepping (and consuming) food, Krejci suggests implementing a nose-to-tail sustainable eating plan. Sustainable food recipes look to make use of more than parts of an animal, like the wings and breasts.
“In today’s culture, we are used to only eating a few cuts of meat,” Krejci says. “This leads to a lot of waste. Learn how to use things like chicken feet, gizzards, beef tongue, or ox tail. Save the bones to make your own bone broth. Render down fat from grass-finished/pasture-raised animals to save for cooking later.”
White suggests freezing leftovers.
Compost food scraps
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists composting as part of its food recovery hierarchy, a number of actions that prioritize reducing food waste.
Krejci says composting food scraps and then re-using them as garden fertilizer is a win-win. Some localities also have locations where you can drop compost.
“A compost pile can be as simple as a pile behind your garage or as complex as a tumbler or bin,” Krejci says. “They even made countertop models for those in apartments.”
Strawberry season is typically June in many parts of the U.S., but you can still buy them in December.
“That’s only because it’s been shipped from halfway around the world,” Krejci says.
She suggests prioritizing seasonal items. This might look like:
- long-storage and cold-tolerant items in cooler months (potatoes, carrots, and onions)
- fast-growing, cold-tolerant produce in the spring (asparagus, cabbage, and lettuce)
- berries, tomatoes, and squashes in the summer
Local farmers can give you a better idea of what is in season in your area.
Try the 100-mile diet
Eating local can reduce the carbon footprint of your food choices. White concedes this doesn’t work for everyone and that social and economic factors play a role. But if possible, she suggests considering what’s known as the “100-mile diet,” which means purchasing produce from farmers within a 100-mile radius of where you live.
She says the benefits of this sustainable food idea include:
- reducing transportation costs and environmental impact
- supports sustainable eating habits and agriculture (ask your farmer about their sustainable food production practices)
- supports the local economy
Krejci says local farmers’ markets are a great way to meet producers and growers from your region without straying more than a couple of miles from home.
Join a CSA
Before food subscription boxes, there were Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and Krejci recommends looking into one. CSAs allow you to purchase “shares” of farm-grown and raised products,” so you’ll get everything from produce to milk, eggs, and meats. Krejci says you can look for CSA opportunities through localharvest.org.
“Make sure that they are using organic methods and that their animals are grass-finished or pasture-raised [or both],” Krejci says.
Grown your own food
Gardening lets you know exactly where your food came from and what practices, such as irrigation and fertilizers, were used.
“You don’t even need fancy raised beds to grow food,” Krejci says. “Simply turn over your grass with a shovel, add some compost, and you’ll be ready to go.”
And garden gives you the opportunity to implement another sustainable eating habit. Krejci suggests canning and saving produce for winter when there’s less in season.
Use sustainable food packaging
Have more questions? Get the facts below.
What is sustainable food?
Generally speaking, sustainable food is nutritious — for people and the environment. It supports a sustainable food system that cuts down on environmental harms, such as water use and greenhouse gases, while also providing improved outcomes for people.
What are some sustainable food examples?
Best says sustainable food examples include beans, sardines, broccoli, peas, pears, quinoa, okra, and spinach.
What brands offer sustainable food?
Best says that brands that practice sustainable habits include Stoneyfield, Justin’s, and Maple Hill Creamery.
“Sustainable brands are everywhere,” notes White. “Look for the USDA organic seal, and try to avoid heavily processed foods when you can.”
What’s a sustainable eating plan?
Best notes that sustainable eating recipes will be largely plant-based. “Foods grown versus raised and processed require fewer natural and nonrenewable resources,” she says.
But cutting meat out entirely isn’t required. Nixing it once or twice per week can make an impact.
What’s the easiest way to eat sustainably?
Krejci says the simplest way to implement sustainable eating habits is to meal plan and locate a CSA in your area. “Once you develop a relationship with [a local farmer], the rest falls into place. It’s so valuable to get connected with where your food comes from and get in touch with the rhythms of nature by eating seasonally,” she says.
Sustainable eating involves consuming food that has a low environmental impact. It’s largely plant-based and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and chronic diseases in humans.
Sustainable food production won’t happen overnight, and much of the impact comes from systems, not people.
Still, research and experts share that adopting sustainable eating habits, such as cutting down on meat consumption even once per week and meal planning to reduce your food waste, can make a difference.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.