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Eat for the planet: 4 quick ways to climate hack your diet

Sarah Leung
A woman prepares a salad while her husband cooks a BBQ in the background

Here's how to eat for the planet’s health (and yours too)

A woman prepares a salad while her husband cooks a BBQ in the background

You only have to pick up your smartphone or turn on your TV to see that climate change has been making news headlines. The Climate Strike Movement, driven forward by Greta Thunberg, has raised our awareness of the environmental impact we have on the planet. Many of us have already started to change our behaviours and lifestyle, whether it be reducing our carbon footprint by biking or using public transport, or reducing single-use and plastic products.

But did you know that what we eat on a daily basis also contributes to climate change? And, more importantly, we can all do something about it?

The food system is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). This is caused by the resources required to raise and grow foods (animals and plants) as well as packaging, processing and transportation.

In general, red meat production such as beef, pork and lamb contribute to the largest GHG emissions, while poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products contribute less. The production of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains have the least impact on the climate.

While we can choose not to use disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles and plastic straws, we can’t choose not to eat.

However, the good news is that there are ways you can eat for your planet’s health and your health too and you don’t need to become a vegan or cut out a certain food group completely. It’s all about balance, so here are four simple ways you can make a difference today:

1. Reduce meat consumption

Red meat (beef and lamb) contributes to the greatest GHG emissions in agriculture, with beef taking the lead. When cows eat grass and other foods, bacteria in their gut releases methane, causing cows to burp - and it's not just the burps that release emissions. From the fertiliser on the fields, to the milking machines and the transportation of feed for the animals, the livestock industry is a contributor to climate issues. We're not saying that you should cut out meat entirely, as meat offers a variety of nutritional benefits such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12; but if you have a meat-heavy diet, reducing red meat consumption will have a positive impact.

To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and to help the planet, the recommendation is that we should be eating between one and three serves (~350g) of red meat a week. To give you some perspective, an average dinner steak is between 150-200grams. When eating red meat, it’s important to buy the best you can afford and try to make sure it’s free range and hormone free.

Children help prepare salad for lunch

2. Replace red meat with protein alternatives

In general, production of poultry, dairy, eggs, fish and seafood have a lower impact on the environment when compared to red meat. These foods also offer a wide range of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, zinc, protein and vitamin B.

Plant-based foods such as soy, nuts, grains and legumes are great alternatives to animal protein. If you are thinking of making a switch or want to increase plant-based protein in your diet, consider adding chickpeas and red kidney beans into tacos or wraps, grains and nuts into salads and lentils into your pasta sauce; or take it a step further and go meat-free one or two days a week.

3. Eat mostly plant-based foods

To have a climate and health-friendly diet, we need to double the consumption of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables. Plant-based foods are packed with dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are all essential nutrients to health. An easy way to start is by adding one or two cups of veggies in an array of different colours to lunch and dinner.

4. Reduce food waste

According to Foodwise, Aussie households throw away up to 20% of the food that we buy. The most common reasons are:

  • That we're buying more food than we need

  • Our food is reaching its expiry date before we eat it

  • We don't know what to do with leftovers

  • We order last minute take away instead of cooking food we already have at home

Throwing food away means that the energy, water and fuel that went into food production is wasted. Additionally, when food rots in landfill, it also releases GHG. To minimise food waste, try to start planning your meals carefully, buy what you need and always check what’s in your fridge and pantry before hitting the shops. For more tips on preparing healthy and cheap meals, check out this article by Dr Sandro Demaio - 5 ways to make your dinner cheaper and quicker than takeaway.

Eating for a healthy planet seems complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Plus, most of the time it will mean you'll be eating a healthier diet for yourself too. We don't have to go on extreme cleanses, cut out entire food groups or even go cold turkey on our current dietary patterns. Making a few small, considered changes will begin to go a long way.

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Portrait of Sarah Leung smiling

Sarah Leung

Sarah Leung is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, a foodie, a lecturer at La Trobe University and passionate in culinary nutrition. This article is part of our series with The Sandro Demaio Foundation. The Foundation aims to nurture the relationship Aussies have with food and encourage healthier choices by translating evidence-based research, collaborating with like-minded innovators and advocating for legislation reform.