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Small dietary changes could offset carbon emissions

Making small dietary changes could be the first step towards reducing carbon emissions and improving our health, suggests a new study co-authored by a researcher from Tulane University and published in the journal Nature Food

The study indicates that straightforward alterations, such as opting for chicken over beef or choosing plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk, can potentially diminish the average American’s food-related carbon footprint by 35 percent, and enhance diet quality by four to ten percent.

Small changes

This research underscores the viability of a “small changes” methodology, which the authors believe might persuade more individuals to embrace eco-friendly dietary practices. 

Since food production contributes to 25-33 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions – with beef production identified as a major source – such changes could be crucial for mitigating pollution and thus climate change.

Simple swaps

“This study shows that cutting dietary carbon emissions is accessible and doesn’t have to be a whole lifestyle change,” said senior author Diego Rose, the director of the nutrition program at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. 

“It can be as simple as ordering a chicken burrito instead of a beef burrito when you go out to eat. When you’re at the grocery store, move your hand one foot over to grab soy or almond milk instead of cow’s milk. That one small change can have a significant impact.”

Focus of the study

The research team analyzed dietary data from over 7,700 Americans to identify high-impact foods and propose lower-emission, nutritionally comparable alternatives. 

“For us, substitutes included swapping a beef burger for a turkey burger, not replacing your steak with a tofu hotdog,” explained lead author Anna Grummon, an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy at Stanford University. “We looked for substitutes that were as similar as possible.”

Substantial reductions

The most substantial reductions in emissions were observed in mixed dishes like burritos and pastas, where substituting beef with a less impactful protein is relatively straightforward. 

The study also incorporated dietary data for children, highlighting that plant-based milk alternatives can significantly reduce carbon footprints and establish positive habits from an early age.

Dietary improvements 

Although the study wasn’t primarily focused on identifying healthier alternatives to high-carbon foods, the switches to lower-carbon options resulted in considerable dietary improvements. 

“There is overlap between sustainable diets and healthy diets. Our study shows that changing just one ingredient, making one swap, can be a win-win, resulting in meaningful changes in both climate outcomes and how healthy our diets are,” Grummon concluded.

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