5 Foods Killing the Planet — and What to Eat Instead

 by Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN

What you put on your plate can have a dramatic effect on climate. Luckily, that also means you can do something about it!


Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused extreme damage to Texas, Florida and the Caribbean in 2017, putting an even bigger focus on climate change and its causes. How does this relate to what you eat? Food production has a huge environmental impact. It's likely that some of your diet staples create greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The silver lining of these recent storms is that there is a growing conversation about how what we put on our plates can have a dramatic effect on the world around us.

Read on to learn about the five worst foods for the environment β€” and some smart swaps you can eat instead.

Should I Stop, Drop and Veg Out?

There's something that the 5 worst foods for the environment have in common β€” they're all animal products. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG) findings, the most harmful foods for the climate are so named because their conventional production emit the most greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Yet unless you're a "free"-gan, all of your meals have some impact on the environment.

"Globally, food production accounts for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. So it's right up there with transportation when it comes to choices we make that impact climate change," says Kate Geagan M.S., RDN, author of "Go Green Get Lean" and coalition member of True Health Initiative's Global Council of Directors. "In general, the lower down on the food chain you eat, the smaller the carbon footprint."

Swapping plant-based protein in place of meat-based protein is a smart idea, but there's no need to go cold turkey (pun intended) to be a good steward of the environment.

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Worst Food No. 1: Lamb

On a list of the most harmful foods for the planet, numero uno is definitely not where you want to find your favorite food. Sorry, lamb! When asked the main premise behind why red meats, including lamb, are at the top of EWG's list of worst choices for generating greenhouse gas emissions, Geagan puts it simply: "You have to grow the food to feed the animals, and in converting 'plant calories' to 'animal protein calories,' you lose a lot." More specifically, lamb is the most resource-intensive meat to produce, due largely to its feed needs as well as fuel, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and water requirements. Lamb is an especially gassy animal too. Surprisingly, it has a 50 percent higher carbon footprint than beef!

The positive news about lamb is that Americans tend to eat small amounts of the meat already. But if you are a lamb lover, what can you eat instead to help reduce the impact on the planet?

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Swap Lamb for Chicken or Lentils

When shopping, a greener choice is always grass-fed or organic lamb. Grass-fed animals eat organic grass, forage and hay. Prep Tip: Reduce the portion size of the meat and increase the portion of accompanying vegetables.

A greener choice would be to eat organic chicken thighs; chicken is more resource-efficient than lamb. Prep Tip: Skewer cubes of boneless, skinless chicken thighs in lieu of lamb for juicier, healthier kebabs

And the greenest choice would be to switch to a vegetarian option like lentils, which are very low on the food chain. Prep Tip: Instead of ground lamb in a recipe like moussaka, use cooked lentils β€” or at least go halfsies with both 100 percent grass-fed lamb and cooked lentils.

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Worst Food No. 2: Beef

When it comes to protein and calories, beef is one of the most inefficient food sources. According to the World Resources Institute, its production emits 20 times more greenhouse gases and takes up 20 times more land as compared with beans, lentils and similar plant-based protein foods based on unit of edible protein. "The top source of climate change impact from beef is methane production β€” a gas that's 23 times as warming as carbon dioxide," Geagan says.

But banning beef isn't required. "A Mediterranean-style diet full of plants and plant proteins and with smaller amounts of red meat helps you lose weight, slash your risk of chronic disease and hidden inflammation, boost the amounts of phytochemicals in your diet and have a lower carbon footprint," says Geagan. "It's a very simple message that changes everything: Your results, your impact."

Swap Beef for Ground Turkey or Mushrooms

If you are going to have beef, always choose a grass-fed or organic variety. Prep Tip: Like lamb, reduce the portion size and increase the portion of accompanying vegetables.

A greener choice is organic turkey. Prep Tip: Simply eat a petite turkey burger (Tip: Pile it high with veggies!) instead of a big beef burger, or top spaghetti with a few turkey meatballs.

And your greenest choice is portobello mushrooms. Prep Tip: Rather than a porterhouse steak, grill a couple of jumbo portobello mushroom "steaks." And instead of ground beef in a recipe like taco filling or chili, use sauteed finely chopped mushrooms. Or go halfsies, mixing 100 percent grass-fed beef with cooked mushrooms.

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Worst Food No. 3: Cheese

Cheese is a carbon-intensive food. Since dairy foods go through a very similar pollution-producing supply chain as beef, that can explain why cheese ranks third for worst environmental impacts, just below beef. Americans are also fond of Italian and other imported cheeses, so its transport contributes to its carbon footprint. Animal waste also causes a significant amount of both water and air pollution, emitting both methane and nitrous oxide. But Americans aren't slowing their cheese consumption.

Those choosing to go vegetarian, whether part-time or full-time, may find themselves replacing meat with additional cheese, but there are plant-friendly ways to punch up protein. "Most people are surprised they can still absolutely meet their protein goals while shifting to a more plant-based approach β€” without sacrificing taste," says Geagan.

Swap Brie for Nut Cheese or Hummus

Go light on the cheese and choose 100 percent grass-fed cheese varieties to limit your footprint. Prep Tip: Choose aromatic options, such as a piquant cheddar or stinky Gorgonzola, so you'll ultimately need less for great taste.

A greener option is plant-based cheese alternatives made with ingredients like nuts. Prep Tip: "Crumble" soft nut-based cheeses, such as Treeline Treenut Cheese, into sandwiches or wraps or onto salads or pastas.

Your greenest option is hummus. It's made with chickpeas, which are very far down on the food chain, yet still provide ample protein. Prep Tip: Enjoy hummus and whole-grain crackers or pita chips in place of cheese and crackers. Or be adventurous and make a hummus quesadilla.

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Worst Food No. 4: Pork

Pork may be "the other white meat" when compared to chicken in leanness, but pork is technically a red meat. The good news is that it's a slightly environmentally friendlier option than its "red" counterparts, namely lamb and beef. The bad news is that, according to the World Resources Institute, pork still requires triple the land and emits triple the greenhouse gases as beans! And EWG findings suggest that processing (including packaging and freezing) and cooking pork meaningfully contributes to overall emissions too.

If you choose to keep pork in your eating plan, curb your intake of processed pork like bacon and ham. The preservatives in these processed conventional pork products are linked to cancer.

Swap Pork for Jackfruit or Tofu

Geagan's advice: "When you do eat meat (including pork) or poultry, choose organic to support agriculture that's regenerative and helps pull carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into the soil β€” and has been shown to have a lower carbon footprint of production." Prep Tip: As with beef and lamb, reduce portion size and increase the portion of accompanying vegetables.

A fun, greener choice is jackfruit, a unique, sustainably grown fruit with a meaty texture β€” though, since at this point it's imported, it loses some "green" points due to transportation. Prep Tip: In place of pulled pork, stuff barbecued jackfruit into your next deliciously sloppy sandwich.

The greenest choice is organic tofu when made from USDA Certified Organic soybeans. Prep Tip: Thinly slice or finely dice smoked tofu and use instead of ham in a sandwich or split pea soup, respectively. Or cube teriyaki baked tofu and toss into a stir-fry in lieu of cubed pork.

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Worst Food No. 5: Farmed Salmon

Go fish β€” but selectively! You can get a healthful punch of omega-3 fatty acids from salmon. But this good-for-you fish isn't great for the planet. Based on EWG findings, much of farmed salmon's greenhouse gas emissions come from a combination of feed, electricity and on-farm fuel burning. (Note: Wild salmon was not included in this report.) But, fish aficionados, have no fear. When compared to other animal proteins, your ecological footprint is better off if you serve salmon for dinner rather than lamb, beef or pork.

Swap Farmed Salmon for Eggs or Veggie Patties

If you're looking to lower your salmon intake, enjoy low-mercury canned tuna as a swap: It emits roughly half of the greenhouse gas emissions of farmed salmon. Prep Tip: Canned tuna is an easy topper for a leafy salad as an alternative to a salmon filet.

A greener choice is organic eggs. They emit just 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of farmed salmon. Prep Tip: Eggs aren't just for breakfast β€” enjoy them anytime! Try serving brown rice and steamed greens topped with two fried organic eggs and drizzled with tamari.

Your greenest choice is a bean, seed or whole-grain "burger" patty. Prep tip: A grilled plant-based burger can be a unique swap for grilled salmon. And you don't need to serve the grilled burger in a bun, either. Instead, top it with a fruity salsa or guacamole.

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Make Some Sustainable Swaps

Rather than total elimination of lamb, beef and other environmentally unfriendly foods, you can take small steps toward a greener diet based on your personal "sustainable sweet spot." Geagan advises eating less meat-based protein while making higher-quality choices like organic, 100 percent grass-fed and certified biodynamic options.

If you do decide to go vegetarian or vegan, Mother Nature will be proud! Think bean chili instead of chili con carne. But just moving toward more plant-centered eating is also helpful β€” for both your body and the planet. "Blenditarian" options, such as replacing half of the ground meat in your burger patty with sauteed finely chopped mushrooms, can be delicious alternatives.

What Do YOU Think?

Are you following more of a plant-based diet now than you were in the past few years? Why or why not? What is one diet swap you pledge to make this year to have more of a positive impact on the climate?


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