How to make food choices that are good for you and the environment.

April 20, 2009


By Shaun Chavis
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It's hard enough to make diet-friendly food choices. But I've recently developed an "eco conscience," and am trying to choose Earth-friendly options, too.

I'll admit, there are days when I only have time to look at what's handy, choose the healthiest option, and grab a fork. But more and more voices are asking Americans to think about how our food choices impact the environment. You've probably read plenty about sustainable farming versus industrial farming, food miles, and going local. But how do you make it work when real life gets in the way?

Take a lesson from Helene York, the director of the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation, who manages 400 cafes in 29 states. In April 2007, York created a Low Carbon Diet Program and implemented it in all her cafes. To cut the impact they have on the climate, these cafes limit beef and cheese, buy locally produced foods, cut down on waste, and seek out sustainable seafood. (Check out their cool Low Carbon Diet Calculator.)

If you've lost weight, you've already got the skills to go green. "[Successful dieters] reevaluate where they are and adopt new habits to get back into a balance," York told me in a phone interview. If you've already made changes to your eating habits, then it won't be difficult to try these diet-friendly ways to reduce your carbon footprint:

Cut back on beef and cheese
Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation, according to a 2006 report from the United Nations.
Try this: Think of meat as a garnish, instead of the bulk of your meal. If you can make a big salad, add a small amount of thinly sliced meat on top.

Downsize portions
The time to think about portions is not just when you're loading your plate, but when you're shopping, too. "Instead of buying less, a lot of dieters throw food out," York says. "When food gets thrown out, all the energy that was used to get that food on your plate is lost."
Try this: Buy only what you need, take only what you'll eat, and eat more leftovers instead of tossing them out. Got extra mushrooms? Search healthy recipes by ingredient.

Choose natural foods instead of highly processed foods
Food in a box, on a per-pound basis, has more calories, unhealthy ingredients, and environmental impact than natural foods.
Try this: If you're looking for a snack to control your munchies, look in the produce section. Get your sugar fix with fruits like strawberries* or try edamame for a filling mid-afternoon snack. Use our guide for choosing the best seasonal produce, try healthy recipes for fruits and veggies, or find a local farmers market.

Want more tips? This year there are some great new cookbooks about eating and cooking in an earth-friendly way. Some, like Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe and Big Green Cookbook by Jackie Newgent, RD, are good guides to changing how you shop and cook—complete with recipes.

Others, like Mark Bittman's Food Matters, take it a step further by putting an emphasis on personal health. In fact, Bittman lost 35 pounds by eating more eco-consciously. Similarly, Go Green Get Lean by Kate Geagan, MS, RD, is a six-week plan to help you lose weight and eat greener at the same time.

If you've been making environmentally-friendly food and cooking choices while losing weight too, share your tips! Leave a comment.

*UPDATE 4/23/09 The post originally listed pineapple as a low carbon food option. However, it’s a high carbon fruit due to the fact that it is only grown in tropical locations and has to travel long distances.


Previous posts by Shaun Chavis:
I'm a 225-Pound Weight-Loss Editor. Get Over It.
Are You Afraid to Go to the Doc Because You're Fat?
Diet Tips for (Grown Up) Picky Eaters

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