What Is the Climatarian Diet? This Eco-Friendly Way of Eating, Explained 

What you eat not only impacts your health but the planet's, too!

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As global temperatures continue to rise, many people are looking for ways they can reduce their carbon footprint. One way is by changing what they eat—or more specifically, following a "climatarian" diet.

Unlike most meal plans, which prioritize personal health, the prime focus of the climatarian diet is to reduce the effects of climate change and improve the health of the planet. It does this by emphasizing locally grown and whole foods over foods that contribute to environmental disruption. As an added win, it also happens to be healthy for you, too.

Whether you're interested in the well-being of Mother Earth or simply curious about what following a climatarian plan involves, here's what you need to know about this increasingly popular way of eating.

What is a climatarian diet?

A climatarian diet is not a traditional diet in that it doesn't require followers—sometimes called climatarians—to adhere to strict food guidelines. Rather, it focuses on eating foods that don't contribute to environmental harm, making it easy to follow compared to other eating plans.

Climatarians are highly aware of how foods are produced, processed, and transported. They use this knowledge to avoid foods that:

  • Require large amounts of natural resources, like land or water
  • Contribute to pollution
  • Cause ocean acidification, which can harm aquatic plants and animals
  • Emit greenhouse gasses (GHG), which trap radiation from the sun and cause global warming
  • Use excessive or non-biodegradable packaging

A climatarian diet doesn't only protect the planet—it protects your health. Environmental degradation is a main contributor to public health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, extreme temperatures raise the risk of heat strokes, while a warming climate threatens food quality and production. Climate change also increases the risks of natural disasters like wildfires (which can result in lung illness-related deaths) and floods (which raise the risk of waterborne illnesses, mold contamination, and death).

Additionally, a 2019 article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America assessed 15 food groups; the article found that foods with the lowest environmental impact also reduced a person's overall risk of death and one or more chronic disease like heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, and stroke.

Although many people cite climate or environmental concerns as the reason they follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, these diets are not the same as a climatarian diet. For example, some climatarians don't believe in nixing meat altogether. Instead, they believe that eliminating entire food groups can make it difficult for many to stick to the diet. As a result, some climatarians simply promote eating less meat, which can still have a significant impact on the environment.

Unlike other plant-based diets, climatarians also curb their consumption of plant-based foods that have a larger environmental footprint, such as out-of-season produce flown across the globe or foods packaged in plastic. Rather, they opt for foods with minimal impact on the environment like these below.

1. Pulses

Pulses, such as beans, lentils, dry peas, and chickpeas, are generally at the top of the climatarian list. That's because pulses naturally enrich the soil with nutrients and improve overall soil structure, meaning a plot of land can yield more crops, according to the United Nations (UN). Plus, they reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, which leads to water pollution and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Pulses also need less water to grow compared to other protein sources.

Pulses are also great for your health, too. A 2021 review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that consuming a little over 5 ounces of cooked pulses a day improved blood lipid levels, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, and body composition (aka the percentage of fat, bone, and muscle in your body).

2. Local, seasonal produce

Climatarians often eat locally grown and in-season produce because it reduces the need for food processing, packaging, transportation, and pollution. Another benefit: In season and locally grown produce travels fewer miles to get to your plate, so it's also less likely to spoil. Currently, about 30-40% of food in the US is thrown away and left to rot in a landfill producing methane—a potent greenhouse gas, according to the USDA.

While you may think a veggie is veggie, that's not the case. In-season produce actually has higher concentrations of nutrients. Why? Because they are more likely to be harvested when they're fully ripe. Plus, fruits and vegetables lose nutrients after harvesting, so a longer transport means more vitamin and mineral loss.

3. Whole grains

Whole grains, like brown rice, oats, and barley, are also a key element of a healthful, environmentally sustainable diet. Generally, grains require less water than other crops. For example, one calorie of grain requires 0.13 gallons of water to grow compared to 2.7 gallons of water per calorie of beef, 0.55 gallons of water per calorie of fruit, and 0.35 gallons per calorie of vegetable.

Whole grain may also help protect against disease. A 2021 review published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety found that higher consumption of whole grains is associated with a lower incidence of contracting or dying from cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, including colorectal, breast, stomach, and esophageal cancers.

4. Nuts

Nuts are another great choice for the climate because they emit less CO2 (a main driver of climate change) compared to other protein-rich foods. For example, producing 100 grams of protein in the form of nuts will emit 0.26 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, eggs would emit 4.21 kg, poultry would emit 5.7 kg, and beef would emit 49.89 kg, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Science.

From a nutrition standpoint, nuts are also a stellar option. A 2020 study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that out of 100,000 study participants, those who ate at least a half serving of nuts per day (1/2 ounce, or a small handful) had a lower risk of heart disease and stroke over a four-year period compared to those who didn't consume nuts.

However, some nuts require a lot of water to grow. A 2019 study in Ecological Indicators found one California-grown almond requires 3.2 gallons of water. But scientists are working on ways to cultivate nuts with less water. In the meantime, you may want to limit your intake to one serving a day if you're climate-conscious. Examples of a serving of nuts include ¼ cup of whole or chopped nuts, two tablespoons of nut butter, or one cup of nut milk.

5. Mushrooms

Unlike other produce from your grocery haul, mushrooms are unique in the sense they're fungi, not vegetables. They stand out from a climatarian perspective because they can grow in the waste of other crops, like almond husks, corn cobs, and cotton hulls, which reduces food waste in landfills. Mushroom farming also requires relatively minimal land and water and releases smaller amounts of CO2. As an added bonus, mycelium—mushroom matter that grows underground—can be an alternative to synthetic plastic.

Consuming mushrooms is also good for you. A 2021 study published in Food & Nutrition Research assessed the nutritional impact of adding three ounces (about a cup) of raw mushrooms to currently recommended USDA food guidelines. What did they find? Those three ounces of mushrooms led to only a 1% increase in overall calories, but an 8-12% increase in potassium, a 12-18% jump in riboflavin (B2), and a 67-90% rise in vitamin D across the different diets' nutritional composition.

Foods to limit on a climatarian diet

Foods most commonly avoided by climatarians due to their negative impact on the planet include:

1. Red meat

Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all GHG emissions, according to the UN. Beef is to blame for most of those emissions, contributing to 41% of the livestock industry's GHG output. Plus, cutting back on red meat likely reduces your risk of cancer, since the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies it as a probable carcinogen.

2. Dairy Products

After beef, dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt contribute the most to the livestock industry's GHG emissions, per the WHO. However, when it comes to your health, the research on curtailing dairy intake is mixed. For example, a 2019 study in BMJ found whole milk consumption was associated with a higher risk of death. Meanwhile, a 2021 review in Nutrition & Metabolism found that, overall, the benefits of milk—like lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and colorectal cancer—outweighed potential risks.

3. Palm Oil

The production of palm oil—which comes from the fruit of certain palm trees—has been associated with deforestation and the destruction of habitats for many endangered species. It's also common in packaged foods, like frozen pizza and chocolate. Cutting back on it could help you reduce your processed food intake.

4. Sugar

A 2020 study published in Annals of Agriculture Sciences found that sugar cane production decreases biodiversity; contributes to air pollution, GHG emission, and soil acidification; and requires large amounts of water. Excess sugar intake can also lead to obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease, according to the CDC.

5. Highly processed foods

Not only do processed foods contain large amounts of sugar and palm oil (already no-gos for climatarians), but they also tend to use plastic packaging. Additionally, a 2022 study published in Nutrients concluded that for every 10% increase in calories from processed foods, there was a 15% higher risk of death.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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