The Other Low-Carb Diet
Eating a little lower on the food chain helps shrink your overall carbon footprint.
By Jodi Helmer
When it comes to shedding pounds, Nancy Richman knows the secret to success. Richman, 41, of Portland, Oregon, refuses to buy bottled water, steers clear of prepackaged foods and chooses organic produce and meats from local farms. Her diet is not about whittling her waistline; it’s about shrinking her carbon footprint.
“We have been concerned about the environment for a long time but it became even more important when we had kids,” explains Richman, mother of Chip, 8, and Charlotte, 6. “We want the earth to be around for our kids—and their kids, too. Making smart choices about what we eat helps us do that.”
Richman isn’t alone. A growing number of environmentalists are changing their diets to protect the planet. This new approach to eating is called a low-carbon diet. Not a fad or a quick fix, low-carbon diets are meant to offset some of the 3.5 tons of carbon emissions that the average American diet creates on an annual basis by promoting food choices that are better for the environment.
“We’re starting to realize that when it comes to helping the environment, what we eat is just as important as what we drive,” notes Kate Geagan, MS, RD, author of Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet (Rodale). “Right now, we have an SUV diet and that needs to change.”
Trading in a resource-intense Hummer diet for an eco-chick Prius eating plan is as simple as following a few steps.
Look at labels: One of the first tenets of a low-carbon diet is choosing foods that have “local” and “organic” on the labels, and are indeed certified as such. Produce, meat and dairy products that were grown or raised on local farms without added pesticides and hormones have a much smaller carbon footprint than the chemical-laden foods that are shipped from overseas. Richman grows many veggies at home and turns to the local farmers markets to stock up on other essentials. In the supermarket, she checks labels when deciding which foods to purchase. “If I have a choice between apples from Oregon and peaches from Chile, I choose the local apples,” she explains. “It does require a little more time and planning but I think it’s worth the effort.”
Eat less meat: Eating meat less often (or making a decision to go vegetarian or vegan) is an important part of a low-carbon diet. Livestock emits methane, accounting for almost 20% of total greenhouse gases, according to a UN report. Geagan suggests choosing chicken and fish, which have smaller carbon footprints than beef, and limiting consumption of red meat to twice per month.
When it comes to shopping for red meat, look for cuts that are grass-fed, organic and, if possible, raised on local farms. “We ingest every chemical that is used to grow or raise the food we eat,” says Honor Schauland, spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org). “We advise people to pay more for organic meat and grass-fed cuts, and eat it less often.” To help with the transition to a plant-based diet, sign up for a vegetarian cooking class or download recipes for meat-free dishes from the Internet.
Rethink your drinks: Invest in a reusable water bottle and switch from bottled water to tap water. “When it comes to resource use, ditching bottled water and hitting the tap instead is one of the best ways to go green,” says Geagan. The Earth Policy Institute (www.earth-policy.org) notes that it takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture the number of plastic water bottles that Americans drink on an annual basis. Even though they can be recycled, almost 70% of water bottles are sent straight to the landfill.
Waste less: Your mom was right when she told you to clean your plate. The Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans waste 30% of all foods produced and purchased in the US. To cut back on waste, shop for foods with minimal packaging and buy only as much as you can realistically eat before your next shopping trip, which will help keep foods from rotting in the refrigerator. Food waste that does need to be discarded should be sent to the compost heap, not the landfill.
Cut your cook-print: It’s not just the foods you choose that have an impact on the planet. Your entire food-related footprint also matters. Kate Heyhoe, editor of globalgourmet.com and
author of Cooking Green: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint in the Kitchen (Da Capo Press), calls this collective impact a “cook-print.” She explains, “Your cook-print refers to all the things that are involved in the eating process from the foods and their packaging to cooking tools. Five years ago, going green in the kitchen meant eating local and organic; those things are still important but there is so much more to it than that.” It’s possible to reduce your carbon footprint by choosing kitchen products made from natural materials like bamboo and cast iron, choosing biodegradable detergents, and steering clear of the garbage disposal. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full, preferably overnight. That’s because during the peak daytime hours, power companies often have to use backup generators to meet high demand. Backup generators are less efficient as the main generators, so you end up using much more energy for the same amount of work.
“Shrinking your cook-print has a huge impact on the environment,” Heyhoe says. “You don’t have to make dramatic changes; you just have to be more aware.”