How Can Changing What You Eat Help Fight Climate Change?

How can you eat sustainably and reduce your impact on the planet? We answer some common questions about eating a lower-emissions diet.
Posted on
August 26, 2022
How Can Changing What You Eat Help Fight Climate Change?

According to one recent article in the New York Times, we need to make serious changes to the global food system to meet emissions targets and keep climate change to a best-case scenario.

The changes they mention? Reducing food waste is one, as is boosting crop yields. And, as you may have guessed: Eating less animal-based foods like meat and dairy. 

Is it better for the environment to eat less meat? 

It’s well-known that animal-based foods tend to have a larger carbon footprint. And a significant reduction in global consumption of animal foods, especially red meat, could be an answer to reducing emissions.

But the good news is, it’s not vegan or nothing.

Simply making some switches from higher-emission foods to lower-emission regularly, if not all the time, is hugely impactful. (The BBC offers this helpful chart to guide you toward more climate-friendly meal planning.)

Read more: Unpacking the carbon footprint of what we eat

Which food has the highest carbon footprint? 

Apologies to your meat-lover’s pizza, but the greatest way to shrink food’s carbon footprint is to cut back on animal products.

Beef is delicious, agreed. Steak with chimichurri! Burgers on the grill! It’s a summertime institution. But these meals have an impact that lasts much longer than how long they keep you full for. 

In 2020 it was reported that meat and dairy production accounts for 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) annually, making up a total of 14.5 percent of man-made emissions. And it’s beef that creates a whopping 60kgs CO2e per kilogram produced, which is double the amount of the next highest-polluting food, lamb.  

Why does beef have such a high carbon footprint?

Many cows are raised on deforested land, as is a lot of the feed that they’re fattened up on. They need a lot of water and energy to get full-grown, and the fertilizer used to grow their food creates emissions, too. 

Plus, cows produce a lot of methane gas (having four stomachs will do that to you), which is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Emissions-wise, if the average American family of 4 halved their beef intake, it would be like not driving for 6 months.

What’s the carbon footprint of eggs and dairy? 

Brace yourself: Your meat-lover’s pizza is about to take another hit. 

Dairy products also have a notable carbon footprint, with cheese producing 21kgs CO2e per kilogram produced. The majority of emissions from cheese come from the same sources as meat: land use and farming processes. 

Cow’s milk has a considerably smaller footprint, at 3kgs CO2e per kilogram, while eggs produce 4.5kgs of CO2e per kilogram.

The answers to some common questions about eating less meat and dairy

It’s time to throw away what you might think about vegetarian and vegan diets. It’s not a club of condescending leaf eaters with zero fun (or protein) in sight, and it’s not just noodles with tomato sauce, either.

Let’s dig into some questions you might have as you eye up your lower-carbon options.

Can a meat-free diet be healthy? 

On the nutrition front, vegan and vegetarian diets are perfectly healthy so long as you’re not subsisting on nothing but French fries and soda. Don’t believe us? All-star athletes Venus Williams and Colin Kaepernick both eat mostly plants, and no one’s worried about their ability to build muscle. And have you heard of German bodybuilding champ Patrik Baboumian?

He’s vegan, and he can flip cars.

Will I get enough protein in a vegetarian or vegan diet?

It’s a hard yes from us, as long as you eat a varied and balanced diet. Plant-based foods like whole grains, beans, nuts and vegetables have plenty of protein.

In truth, most people meet or exceed their daily recommended protein intake. The guidelines for most adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight: For a person who weighs 75 kilograms, that’s 60 grams of protein a day. That could look like a breakfast of Greek style yoghurt with fruit and cereal, a two-egg omelette for lunch, and vegetable stir-fry with rice and tofu for dinner. 

Look at the evidence: if pro athletes can thrive while eating vegan, then surely we couch surfers and weekend warriors can, too. (If you want to learn more about plant-based nutrition, the books Becoming Vegetarian and Becoming Vegan by dieticians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina are thorough, science-based and very well respected.)

What are the best sources of protein in a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Here’s a comprehensive list, which includes: Pumpkin seeds; Greek style yoghurt; cottage cheese; firm tofu; beans, peas or lentils; eggs; cheese; and nuts—peanuts and almonds in particular. 

Will I get more hungry eating a vegetarian or vegan diet? 

Varied and balanced goes for feeling full, as well. One trick is to ensure all your meals include foods rich in protein, fat and fibre, rather than just carb-loading at every opportunity. Legumes, nuts and seeds are your friends here.

That might mean lentil soup with a drizzle of olive oil, or quinoa in kale salad with some pumpkin seeds as a garnish. Or learn to cook with tofu.

It’s a highly adaptable gift to plant-based eaters that performs equally well blended into a dead-ringer faux ricotta as it does in traditional dishes from countries like Thailand, China and Japan.

Take inspiration from India and learn to turn chickpeas into chana masala. Or stash edamame in your freezer for a snack or meal ingredient that takes just minutes to prepare.

Is it easy to cook vegetarian or vegan meals?

As with any type of cooking, you can choose dishes that are quick and simple to prepare, or complex and time consuming.

Deboning a duck Julia Child–style isn’t a walk in the park.

And neither is making from-scratch seitan (a protein-rich ingredient made from vital wheat gluten, also called wheat meat). But you pick and choose what dishes you have bandwidth for.

The future looks bright for plant-based eating

Eating plant-based is much easier than it used to be. Lots of restaurants have vegetarian and vegan options that make for perfect takeout or delivery. For instance, look for vegan Chinese food—they’ve got an imitation meat tradition that goes back millennia.

Meat-free eating has deep roots in many cuisines. And you don’t have to go whole hog: you can take baby steps to reduce your meat intake. Start with Meatless Monday and make a dal or dinich wot, an Ethiopian potato stew.

And, many grocery store freezer sections stock vegan mains like faux meatballs or chicken nuggets that taste great and are ultra-quick to prepare.

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Amy Valm
Written By
Amy Valm

Amy Valm is a writer and editor who probably makes the same jokes as your dad. She has been a pretty big fan of the planet since the '80s.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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