We humans

Not ready to be vegan? Here are 5 tweaks to make your diet more Earth-friendly

Jan 20, 2021 /

Feeding the world’s 7.6 billion people is taking a serious toll on the planet. Global food production accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and agricultural systems cover a whopping 43 percent of the world’s desert and ice-free land. 

“As climate change approaches a point of no return and our land and marine ecosystems become increasingly fragile, the need for a change to our food system becomes more and more urgent,” says Bruce Friedrich, a TED Fellow and cofounder of the Good Food Institute.  

What’s more, the impacts of food production go beyond climate change and habitat loss. ”Widespread antibiotic use amongst farmed animals is leading to growing antibiotic resistance in humans that threatens modern medicine as we know it,” Friedrich explains. “And an increasing amount of diseases originating from livestock are spreading to human populations.”

It’s clear that reducing our meat consumption is good for Earth’s carbon budget and for our health — but choosing planet-friendly meals shouldn’t feel like a punishment. “You don’t have to go from the typical [meat-heavy] diet to a strict vegan diet. Start slow, experiment, try some plant-based dishes,” says Hawaii-based vegan chef Lillian Cumic. “It’s not just about food … It’s an experience, and it’s meant to be enjoyed.” 

Here are five simple ways to make your diet more climate-friendly. 

Start small

You don’t have to change everything at once. In fact, research shows that you’re more likely to adopt new routines if you start with simple actions. Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg calls this the Tiny Habits method, or the idea that we can gradually rewire our brains by celebrating each small, concrete step we take towards our goal. 

Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset, and play around with portion size. “Meat used to be the side dish, but more and more, it’s become the centerpiece,” says Graham Hill, author of Weekday Vegetarian. If you typically eat meat at all of your meals, start by adding one meat-free dish to your day or designating a meatless day of the week. And if you’re worried about not getting enough nutrients, you can easily supplement meals with protein-rich alternatives like nuts, legumes and beans. 

Choose lower-impact meats 

Plant-based food production typically requires less carbon emissions than livestock. For example, producing 100 grams of beef protein releases 90 times more emissions than it takes to produce the same amount of pea protein. But if you’re not ready to give up meat, you can still choose more climate-friendly fare. 

“From a carbon perspective, chicken, pork and wild fish are less impactful than beef, lamb and farmed fish — and by quite a lot,” Hill says. The latter produce more emissions of methane and greenhouse gases, require more land and create more pollutants. 

Consider swapping your steak for chicken or sustainable seafood. If you’re a frequent meat eater, cutting down on beef and lamb can drop your footprint significantly, Hill says. And it’s not just better for the planet: Numerous studies show that red meat is related to poor health outcomes. You can also mix it up and create lower carbon combos: use half a portion of red meat with a half portion of poultry. You’ll still get some of the flavor and texture without the same impact. 

Ditch the dairy 

Cattle are responsible for about 65 percent of the livestock sector’s emissions, and that includes 270 million dairy-producing cows worldwide. 

“There are so many plant-based vegan options available: cheeses, yogurts, butter, milk and ice cream,” Cumic says. In addition to these vegan substitutes, there are many creative ways to reduce your overall dairy intake. For example, it takes four times the milk to make Greek yogurt as it does to make traditional yogurt, so making a simple switch can make a big difference. 

Cheese is also one of the worst offenders in terms of carbon footprint, but not all are created equal. One study compared mozzarella and cheddar and found cheddar had a higher environmental impact because it’s made using more milk and is heavier to transport. And keep in mind the longer your cheese is aged, the more energy is required for storage. You can also swap out cheese altogether, and experiment with flavoring your sandwiches, salads and pastas with alternative (but delicious) add-ins, like avocado, sauteed veggies, almonds or hummus. Have a sweet tooth? Skip the ice cream, and opt for a berry or chocolate sorbet or Italian ice. 

Use savory substitutions

Meatless doesn’t mean flavorless. “If you want plant-based food to taste good, you need to know how to flavor with things that are not going to ruin the ingredients,” Cumic says. “You want to highlight the ingredients, not cover them up or drown them in sauces.” 

She recommends using flavor enhancers such as kombu (an edible kelp), vegan dashi, shiitake mushrooms, nutritional yeast and alaea (Hawaiian red salt) — these ingredients are packed with savory taste. You can also use small meat portions to season your dishes rather than making it the main course. For example, adding a little bit of meat or oyster sauce to your veggie-stir fry or pasta sauce might be enough to satisfy those carnivorous cravings.

Connect with others and have fun

Trying new dishes can be intimidating, but you don’t have to do it alone. Teaming up with other folks who want to expand their palates can make it more enjoyable, plus research suggests that we’re more likely to stick to new habits when we have social support. 

For inspiration, Cumic suggests going to farmers’ markets to look for vegan vendors, sampling a variety of dishes, and talking to the chefs about their favorite recipes. If you’re hesitant to experiment at home, try ordering new dishes from a local restaurant first to figure out what you like. You can also tantalize your senses before you even take a bite. “Take the time to add that magic touch — choose the right bowl, set the table, be mindful of aroma, texture and visual appeal,” she says. 

We’ve all heard of Zoom happy hours, so why not designate a weekly or monthly meatless meal with friends and family? For a more formal experience, you could even sign up to take virtual vegetarian cooking classes together. Creating meaningful memories around food has another benefit, Fogg says. Infusing positive emotion into the experience can reinforce new habits and help them stick.

Watch Bruce Friedrich’s TED Talk here: