What Is Environmental Eating? A Sustainable Foods Dietitian Explains

And shares her go-to groceries!

As a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in sustainable food systems, I’m always considering how food not only impacts human health, but the health of our beautiful planet – especially when perusing the grocery store aisles. While it might be hard to believe that we can impact climate change through what we eat—a practice known as environmental eating—our food choices can seriously alter the environment. Read on to learn more about environmental eating, and find out what foods you’ll always find on my grocery list to nourish my body and protect the planet.

Why Environmental Eating Matters

When it comes to climate change, our global food system is actually a major contributor. In fact, it’s responsible for approximately a third of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) across the planet. This takes into account all the manufacturing, processing, and transportation of the inputs and outputs of this massively complex system. It also includes the emissions, including methane (a GHG 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide), from the animals that are raised for food production. Plus, there’s so many other factors to acknowledge, including unsustainable water usage, deforestation, use of inequitable labor, and pollution of air, water, and ecosystems.

Thankfully, there is a growing food revolution dedicated to improving the impact of our food system. These movements are working from every angle—investing in better farming practices, labor laws, water regulation, and technology aimed at reducing the footprint of food. Supporting food producers making environmentally-sound decisions while choosing foods that have the least impact (if not a positive one) are the best things you can do when looking to take climate action through your food choices.

The Basis of Environmental Eating

While environmental eating can be complex and multi-faceted, here are just a few key concepts to keep in mind when shopping for food:

  • Opt for Plants First: Internationally recognized research group, Our World in Data, found that plant-based foods emit 10 to 50 times less GHGs than animal-based products, due to many of the reasons mentioned above. Plus, plants require carbon dioxide (CO2) to perform photosynthesis for growth—actually sequestering this GHG from the atmosphere. Great options here include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, which will all provide tons of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and immune-boosting plant compounds.
  • Limit Animal-Based Products, Especially Red Meat: On a similar note, limiting animal-based food choices will have a hugely positive impact. But when we do choose animal-based foods, there’s so many ways to make better environmental choices, including limiting red meat. Not only has red meat been linked to chronic disease like heart disease and colon cancer, but it also has the most significant environmental impact. In fact, 14.5 percent of all global GHG emissions are linked to livestock production. Whether it’s red meat, dairy, chicken, eggs, or other animal-based favorites, a great way to reduce the impact of these food choices is to look for regeneratively-raised options. Regenerative agriculture is a circular system where animals graze and then naturally fertilize pasture land with their waste. This helps that land to build healthy soil, sequester carbon, and even restore ecosystems.
  • The Less Processing, the Better: If we think about some of the processed food options lining grocery stores shelves nationwide, many of them have upwards of 20 ingredients. Each of those ingredients, especially ones with hard-to-pronounce names, went through their own manufacturing process with its own emissions before even arriving at the factory to be included in the food in question – which then, of course, has its own footprint. Plus, processed foods often come in lots of packaging, with nearly all of them including some form of plastic, most of which cannot be recycled. Processed food consumption is also inextricably linked to chronic disease.
  • Invest in Local and Organic: While local and organic farming systems are not always following the gold standards for environmental farming practices, they typically are doing a much better job than their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture avoids the use of the gnarliest chemicals within the system, and is often utilized by producers who really care about the products they’re bringing to the market and the land they farm. With local farming, you have the advantage of either actually going to the farm, or connecting with the farmer in some other way to ask the hard-hitting questions on what types of practices they’re employing—chemicals, equitable labor, soil health, water usage…you get the picture. Plus, through supporting your local food producers, you’re supporting the local economy, which is a major bonus.

Environmentally-Friendly, Nutritious Foods to Buy

So without further ado, here are six foods that you’ll always find in my grocery cart that prioritize optimal nutrition and minimal environmental impact:


Lentils are such a great staple for me, as they make the perfect protein-rich addition to soups, salads, grain bowls, and dals. Plus they are loaded with nutrition—including fiber, protein, B vitamins, zinc, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese, and plant compounds. Lentils not only sequester carbon through their growth process, but they are also nitrogen-fixing plants, which means they pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. Nitrogen is the main ingredient in fertilizer, so these plants can help farmers reduce their use of the chemical stuff, and boost their soil productivity naturally.


Mushrooms are all the rage these days, especially the adaptogenic varieties like reishi, lion’s mane, and shiitake. Adaptogens help our bodies more easily handle internal and external stressors, increasing our resilience. But classic mushrooms like portobello, button, enoki, and oyster are also super good for us. Generally, you can expect mushrooms to offer fiber and a variety of vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds. Mushrooms play a key role in the plant kingdom, as they help to clean up their environment, cycling nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon for other plants to use. Plus, these fungi are the most delicious addition to pastas, eggs, rice, soups, salads, or even just sautéed as an easy side dish.


From both a health and environmental perspective, it’s tough to beat aquatic plants, like spirulina. Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is loaded with protein, prebiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, copper, manganese, and plant compounds. These nutrients lend to boosted immune, heart, metabolic, and brain health. This perfect smoothie addition is also a sustainability champion due to its quick regeneration rate, nearly doubling in size each day, and sequestering massive amounts of carbon. Bonus: it can even be grown hydroponically!

Dark leafy greens

We all know dark leafy greens, like kale, collards, spinach, and arugula, to be excellent health foods due to their high fiber, vitamin K, iron, calcium, and bioactive compound content. But they’re also great environmental food choices, as they grow quickly and can be easily produced indoors year-round, either in soil or hydroponically. Whether they’re added to smoothies, grain bowls, pastas, casseroles, soups, salads, or any of the other endless possibilities, some type of leafy green is always a must grab during every grocery trip.


Citrus fruits, like oranges, are classically known to be immune boosters due to their high vitamin C content, with one cup of orange slices offering over 100 percent of your daily needs. But many might not know that oranges are one of most sustainable fruit choices, as they are harvested from trees that typically remain in the ground for decades, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and keeping it in the soil long-term. These bright bursts of flavor are one of the few produce items seasonal to winter, and add the perfect acidic sweetness to dressings, salads, sauces, and a variety of sweet treats.


Finally, we have anchovies. And while this may seem like an odd choice, anchovies are an underrated food that is shelf-stable, nutritious, sustainable, and delicious. Anchovies are a great source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium (thanks to their tiny, unnoticeable bones we consume while enjoying them), selenium, and B vitamins. This nutrition will promote energy, strong bones, heart health, and optimal thyroid function. From the sustainability front, few fish options are more environmentally-friendly than anchovies. This is because their low level on the food chain means that they grow quickly and are abundant, especially compared to a top feeder like salmon or tuna. This also means they will have very low mercury levels compared to the bigger fish. While wild anchovies are not an infinite resource, they are certainly a more sustainable choice, with much higher population numbers than the top feeders being rampantly overfished today. Plus, they can be ethically farmed. I love having anchovies on hand for pastas, salad dressings, and umami-rich sauces.

With these environmental eating tips and grocery list items, you can be well on your way to making more sustainable food choices. These choices can help you make a positive impact on climate change, and that is downright empowering.

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