When we think about being healthy, that includes not only a sustainable lifestyle but also sustainability for the planet. So how do we eat cleaner, greener and healthier for us and the planet? It turns out that flipping our script and eating lower on the food chain has a positive impact on our personal well-being and the planet.
Eating at the bottom of the food chain means you’re eating mostly plants while eating at the top of the food chain means you’re eating mostly animals. Researchers at Oxford University indicate commercial meat, dairy, egg and fish farming uses 83% of the world’s farmland, yet provides only 18% of the world’s calories. Commercial livestock typically consumes an average of six times more protein than it produces. Nearly 1,799 gallons of water are required to produce a single pound of beef for human consumption. A single pound of pork requires 576 gallons of water. One pound of beans, on the other hand, requires only 538 gallons of water and eggs require only 395 gallons of water on average.
When looking at these numbers, it’s clear to see eating fewer animal products, or “eating lower on the food chain” is synonymous with eating fewer animal proteins, but it’s also synonymous with eating in a way that reduces carbon footprint and considers not only the nutrient values of our foods, but also the larger impact our food choices have on our health and that of the planet.
Here are a few easy-to-adopt ways to eat lower on the food chain and closer to optimal health:
Whether that means switching your protein sources to include more plants, or eating more plants at each meal, eating more plants and fewer animal foods is beneficial for our well-being and that of the planet. There are many recently-popular reasons to eat more plants than ever. Disease rates associated with Western diets, which are particularly high in animal proteins, animal fats, refined sugars and packaged products. Global diets based on plant foods are considerably lower in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Eating organic food is about not allowing toxins to enter our bodies. But eating vegetables and fruits that have been raised organically is also about keeping those toxins out of our soil, where they deplete the nutrient density. When we consume plants grown in soil with a reduced nutrient density, we benefit less compared to those grown in vibrant, rich soils.
Beans are a healthy, inexpensive, easy-to-prepare way of getting more protein in our diets. Plus, they’re delicious. Whether you’re pressure cooking beans in an Instant Pot, or popping open a can, eating low on the food chain with beans means eating meals high in vitamins, nutrients, lean proteins and minerals.
Not all meats and animal products are created equally. Animals raised on regenerative, sustainable small farms, where they are employed as part of a larger agricultural system, grazing grasslands and helping farmers turn fields, are less resource-intensive to raise and raised without GMOs and hormones.
Most of the produce found in our grocery stores has traveled across the country, and in the case of many fruits and vegetables, from other countries. We think of traveling to Peru, or Mexico as being a big trip, but the berries you buy each week have traveled at least that far.
The number of farmers markets in the United States has nearly quadrupled in the past two decades, up from 2,000 markets in 1994 to more than 8,600 in 2019. This means there’s a high likelihood your hometown has one. Farmers markets aren’t just an opportunity to purchase the freshest, most local produce, but they also help us understand more about the seasons. Knowing your farmer — and purchasing a proportion of your foods from him or her — means you’re also eating with the smallest carbon footprint because your food isn’t making a transcontinental trip to arrive at your table.
We’ve all heard about “eating seasonally,” but that can be difficult to do when every fruit and vegetable of our dreams is at the grocery store. Fruits and vegetables grown out of season in greenhouses and shipped across the country, or the world, are typically grown using large amounts of water and energy to re-create optimal growing environments. But your farmer knows the lowdown on what grows when. Eating in season means your meals are aligning with foods at their freshest, and you’re enjoying each ingredient at just the time nature intended.
Processed foods require energy, water and other resources to arrive in your grocery store, and eventually your pantry. When possible, opt to buy your grains, nuts and seeds in bulk, make your dressings and spreads at home, and freeze your own vegetables from their original state. The more boxes you ban from your meals, and the more you make your foods at home using whole, real foods, the lower on the food chain you’ll eat and the higher your health will soar.
When you visit the farmers market, ask your purveyors about the “seconds” they may have stashed behind their stalls. “Seconds” are the less beautiful fruits harvested from organic and other farms that don’t look as perfectly perky, but still possess all of the nutrients, vitamins and benefits as their pretty counterparts. These fruits and vegetables are perfect for pickling, canning, preserving and fermenting — and if they aren’t purchased, they occasionally go to waste. Many cities also have “ugly fruit” programs where you can purchase these same oft-overlooked fruits and vegetables from grocery stores and other purveyors. They come at a reduced cost — and still bring maximum value, nutritionally and environmentally.
Once you have all those beautiful, in-season vegetables in hand — preserve them so they stick around longer. Quick pickling, fermenting and preserving in-season vegetables is a fabulous way of boosting flavors in your foods, incorporating healthy pre- and probiotics into your diet, and saving seasonal foods for a colder, less bountiful day. (Think: Beautiful summer red tomato sauce in the middle of winter, bright fermented cabbage slaw for those mid-winter days when there isn’t a plant growing anywhere in sight.) Whether you set aside a day each month to pick up farm-fresh vegetables and put them up or squirrel away a few jars as you go, your granny had it all right: Saving those flavors is a fantastic way of lowering your carbon footprint and bolstering your health.
With all of these amazing plants in your possession, it would be a shame to let any shred of them go to waste. Eating “stem to stem,” puts every bit of the vegetable to use somewhere in your cooking in unexpectedly delicious ways. Here are a few favorites:
- Store stems, onion skins, Brussels sprout butts and any other compost-ready scraps in a bag in your freezer. When the bag fills up, make a flavorful vegetable broth by adding water and a pinch of salt and letting it simmer to build flavor.
- Save those carrot tops and broccoli stems and make pesto
- Beet greens are hearty and pack a nutrient punch when sauteéd like collard greens. Simply trim, wash and go to town.