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What Does a Sustainable Diet Look Like? Advice for Real Families

Adopting a sustainable diet is one of the best ways to curb your family’s waste and carbon footprint...but what does that really mean? Is adopting a vegan diet the only way, or is there room at the table for different ways of eating? Here we discuss ways we can all eat more sustainably, even without completely eliminating any food groups.

Anyone who has spent much time researching sustainability or inquired about sustainable diets has probably come across the same basic information: vegan and vegetarian diets are associated with fewer emissions and environmental impacts. We also know that eating whole foods with limited processing--such as whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains--is better both for the environment and for us nutritionally.

However, putting this advice into action is deceptively difficult, especially when it comes to getting the entire family on board. Change is hard!. We all need to eat several times a day, and we all have our own relationship with food based on our upbringing, beliefs, and nutritional needs. I also think that by being too hard on others for not following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet we lose the opportunity to encourage them to instead make less extreme, yet nonetheless impactful changes.

And really, because of the complex, global food economy that exists, it is very difficult to make direct comparisons between different food sources. Which is more sustainable: eggs from chickens in my backyard or an orange that traveled thousands of miles to reach my fruit bowl? Paper-wrapped pork from a local farmer or tofu in a plastic container from four states away? What if the product that travels a vast distance is organic? I think it would take an economist or a statistician to truly answer these questions, but it does provide food for thought (pun intended). Our tangled food web is nuanced, and how food is grown, transported, and packaged can be just as important as the food itself. (You can learn more about these issues in my post on Upstream Waste).

This is why our family is not vegetarian or vegan. I believe that our food system is too complex for absolutes or to say that one food is more sustainable than another all of the time no matter what. I also want my children to grow up experiencing a bit of everything so they can learn to make informed, positive food choices as adults. The big exception is processed foods, of course, as they are both bad for the environment (lots of packaging, lots of energy used to basically strip them of nutrients) and bad for us nutritionally. I do like to make homemade treats, and I’m not going to be the food police when we go to other people’s houses, but we almost never purchase any store-bought processed foods for our house.

What The Science Says:

So what does a sustainable diet actually look like? I think the most reasonable guidelines (both reasonable for the environment and for everyday families to follow) come from the Eat Lancet Commission. Eat Lancet is a science-based commission that is focused not only on environmental impacts but also on the practical concerns involved with providing enough food to feed our growing world population a healthy, nutritious diet without depleting our planetary resources or contributing to climate change. Isn’t that, in a nutshell, the definition of sustainability?

Enter Eat Lancet’s Planetary Health Diet.

Like many environmentally focused diets, they recommend that whole fruits and vegetables make up the majority of your diet, followed by whole grains, plant-sourced proteins and unsaturated plant oils, respectively. However, based on the scientific studies used to develop this diet, the Eat-Lancet Commission concluded that animal protein and dairy can be incorporated into a sustainable diet, albeit in very small amounts. Nothing is prohibited, but the diet is very clear that we should be realistic about the amount of animal products we can eat sustainably.

The approach outlined by Eat-Lancet is very much how our family eats, though we place special emphasis on local foods and finding ways to reduce packaging upstream waste. It’s similar to a flexitarian diet, though I think the limitations on meat and dairy are more concrete. Again, the point is not to become the food police, but rather to come together as a family to eat food that is delicious, nutritious, and good for the planet, while also teaching our children healthy attitudes toward foods and how to make food positive choices.

Tips For Acquiring Foods Sustainably

For all food groups and types of food, our family makes food acquisition and purchasing decisions based on the following parameters:

  • Local: Starting with our own backyard and our CSA Vegetable share, we try to get whatever is in season and must travel the shortest distance to our home first.

  • Organic: Produce that has been grown using sound environmental practices is next on our list. We live in a rural area at 5000+ feet elevation. On top of a very short growing season, some things just don’t grow here, so we prioritize organic produce whenever we can find it.

  • In-Season: If something is out of season, it most likely traveled a long way to get to us, or it’s been stored for a very long time and as a result has lost flavor and nutrition. We opt for in-season produce as much as possible, freezing, canning, or otherwise preserving extras for the off-season.

  • Minimal Packaging: We do our best to eliminate unnecessary waste in our home. Look for produce that is “naked” as much as possible, meaning it doesn’t come in a plastic clamshell or bag. Instead, put your fruits in veggies in a reusable produce bag, or just go with no bag at all. If packaging is involved, is it compostable? Reusable? Recyclable?

When we’re lucky, we find items that meet all four of these categories: Local, organic, in-season, and package-free. Since this doesn’t happen all of the time (especially in the wintertime) I look for items that are at least a combination of any two.

More Food for Thought

In my next post, I outline our family’s guidelines for eating each food group, including how often we eat certain foods and how we source different foods as sustainably as we can, while also being practical and realistic about what is feasible for us as a busy family. Basically, this post focused on the foundation for our eating practices, while Part II focuses on the specifics.

For more information about sustainable eating, be sure to check out:

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