Nutritious and flavorful plant-based burgers can contain protein-rich sources such as falafel, black beans and chickpeas. Linda Hughes / 500px / Getty Images
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Making drastic dietary changes to lower your carbon footprint and improve your health may seem like a big undertaking, but a new study identifies a few simple food swaps you can make that can have a big impact.
The study, led by the Stanford University School of Medicine (Stanford Medicine), suggests making exchanges like chicken for beef or choosing plant-based milk over dairy. These changes, if universally adopted, would reduce the dietary carbon footprint in the U.S. by more than 35 percent, a press release from Stanford Medicine said.
“Many people are concerned about climate change, but sweeping dietary change can be hard,” said lead author of the study Anna Grummon, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford Medicine, in the press release. “Instead, we’ve identified simple, achievable substitutions — small changes — that can still produce a meaningful impact.”
The researchers used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index to assess the health impacts of the dietary changes they suggested and found they would improve overall dietary quality.
The study, “Simple dietary substitutions can reduce carbon footprints and improve dietary quality across diverse segments of the U.S. population,” was published in the journal Nature Food.
The research team combined a national survey on people’s food choices in the U.S. with data on greenhouse gas emissions from food in order to come up with easy swaps that could have an exceptionally big impact on climate, according to the press release.
Foods that make disproportionate contributions to greenhouse gas emissions were identified in four food groups: protein, dairy, mixed dishes and beverages. The researchers then paired each of the foods with a similar alternative that had a significantly lower carbon footprint. They then calculated what the impact would be on the environment and the individual’s carbon footprint.
“The key was to find swaps that were culinarily equivalent,” Diego Rose, senior author of the study and professor with the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said in the press release. “By doing this, we think it will be pretty easy for people to adopt the new dishes, because they will be pretty similar to what they are currently eating.”
The researchers found that making exchanges of protein and mixed dishes had the most impact, with beef being by far the most powerful food to substitute. Substituting a chicken patty for ground beef means your burger will have an eight to 10 times lower carbon footprint. A ground beef patty has a 20 times higher carbon footprint than one that’s plant-based.
Choosing chicken instead of beef for a meal results in an average reduction in greenhouse gas emissions roughly equal to driving nine miles. If everyone participated, it could add up to hundreds of millions of miles per day.
“Some foods, like beef, are damaging enough that an individual making a swap would see a big difference in their personal carbon footprint,” Grummon said in the press release. “When those foods are popular, the differences really start to matter when added up across a population.”
Grummon pointed out that, when it comes to environmental impact, beef is “a triple whammy.” It is especially hard on the environment due to the amount of land cows need for grazing — which is often come by through the destruction of forests — the methane they produce during digestion and their longer lifespans, which lead to a larger dietary footprint themselves.
Other not-so-obvious swaps that can make a difference are chicken for pork, pork for lamb and salmon for crab.
The researchers mostly want to encourage consumers to choose not to eat the foods they eat most often that have the biggest carbon footprint.
Grummon is looking into potential educational campaigns while keeping in mind three main goals: swapping beef and pork main courses for those made with chicken or veggies, exchanging milk from cows for plant-based milk and substituting juice with whole fruit. The carbon footprint of a serving of juice is much higher than that of fruit.
The changes proposed by the study not only lead to a lower carbon footprint, but healthier eating habits. Diet shifts simulated in the study increased the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index by four to 10 percent. Higher scores on the index are associated with lower risk of heart disease, cancers and other health issues.
“It’s really a win-win,” Grummon said in the press release. “If you are a person who wants to make a dietary change for either health or environmental reasons and you make the changes that we propose, you’re likely to see the benefits you want.”