What Is a Climatarian Diet? Science-Based Tactics for Eating Healthier and Eco-Friendlier
Gen Corte / EyeEm / Getty Images
A healthier diet. It’s an often abandoned New Year’s resolution and something we don’t think about every day. However, how you eat and what you eat can have a real impact on your carbon footprint. That’s what the climatarian diet is all about, and it’s not a misnomer or a weird fad diet trending on TikTok.
Cornell University reports that 99.9% of peer-reviewed studies agree: Anthropogenic climate change is happening.
What we eat makes up about a quarter of world greenhouse gas emissions, according to Our World in Data. Unfortunately, much of that is down to animal agriculture, land use and animal-based food products, as we will discuss below.
The essential idea behind the climatarian diet is: mindfully consuming food is a beneficial alternative to help the environment and eat healthier overall.
Benefits of the Climatarian Diet, According to Health Experts
“A climatarian diet can promote health and also preserve the environment,” says Dr. Daniel Boyer, a medical doctor in pharmacology and internal medicine focused on research at Farr Institute. “It is aimed at limiting animal-based food products and taking [in] more plant-based foods in their natural forms. Plant-based foods greatly reduce carbon footprint compared to animal-based food products that increase the carbon footprint.”
Boyer explains that the climatarian diet tends to avoid processed food and can benefit your health in the long term. He says that highly processed food, including plant-based foods, lack the nutritional value of whole foods and contain high components of added sugars, sodium and fat.
He says that these types of foods don’t keep you full and lead to food cravings for what your body actually needs — real nutrition. Eating excess processed foods leads to excess intake of salts and calories that increases your risk for obesity. Obesity can raise your risk of developing heart disease by up to 28%, according to Harvard Health. You may also be at risk for other serious health conditions, such as diabetes.
While there’s not yet much research on the climatarian diet, the research on plant-based diets has identified significant health benefits associated with this diet, including reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
“The climatarian diet does align with known healthy eating practices,” says Kristin Gillespie, a registered dietician based in Virginia Beach, Virginia at Option Care Health. “It’s rich in fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins, and it’s more restrictive of animal products, processed and packaged foods. It is also widely known that shopping local and in-season is more environmentally friendly and experts have identified a significant decrease in CO2 emissions resulting from this diet. Overall, I do think that this diet has merit beyond environmental impact as it encourages its followers to adhere to a healthy but overall nutritionally adequate diet.”
The Carbon Footprint of Food Production and Food Waste
Food is front and center in tackling the climate change crisis, according to Our World in Data. Its 2020 analysis explored the environmental impact of food production and agriculture, finding that food production cultivates a costly carbon footprint for the planet. Where do we stand when it comes to major global impact?
Land Use, Ocean Pollution and Biodiversity
Imagine Earth’s surface for a moment, 71% water and 29% land.
The land without ice and desert, all that’s habitable — half is currently used for agriculture. That’s out of the 71% (habitable land) of the 29% (total land).
Comparatively, a 2018 study published in Science found that humans occupy 50-70% of Earth’s land, significantly shrinking mammal mobility.
However, humans only make up 0.01% of life on Earth. Livestock comprises 94% of mammal biomass (obviously excluding humans) and outweighs wild mammals by almost 15:1. In 2019, the IUCN Red List contained about 28,000 species threatened with extinction: Agriculture and aquaculture were listed as a threat for 24,001 of these species.
Urban areas make up a small amount of the real estate we take up. However, Our World in Data reports that we are left with 37% of land for forests; 11% for grasslands and shrubbery; and 1% for freshwater coverage.
Agriculture causes 78% of ocean and freshwater pollution, and it also contributes 70% for freshwater withdrawals (usage), while households account for 11%.
Livestock takes up 77% of world farming land, producing 37% of the world’s protein and 18% of its calories. Beef (beef herd), lamb and mutton, cheese, and beef (dairy herd) make up the highest producers that take up the most land.
Food Systems and Transportation
Our World in Data notes that transportation comprises less than 1% of beef’s global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while the worst GHG offenders are beef, lamb and mutton.
Most food is transported by sea, which produces the highest carbon footprint of transportation methods, followed by road and rail, according to a 2018 study published in Science. Researchers calculated “food miles” by the distance traveled per method times the mass of the food moved. The study also found that food systems impact 26% of GHG emissions:
- 32% from land use
- 39% from agricultural production
- 3.5% from food processing
- 4.8% from transportation
- 5.5 % from packaging
- 4% from retail
- 2.5% from consumer preparation
- 8.6% from food waste
Food waste is often talked about but little solved. Personal food waste may be reduced through effective meal planning (start small) and composting. You can even set up composting for your apartment through local government services or use of a small electric composter.
The energy that goes into food production is the main culprit (whether electricity, heat or industrial processes) of greenhouse gas emissions, the study found. The decarbonization of agriculture isn’t a clear route, though we can upscale low-carbon energy through renewable resources such as solar energy.
In the past, electricity has been shown to be the highest energy commodity used in the U.S. food system. The challenges ahead need a menu of solutions to match them: food waste reduction, agricultural efficiency improvements, affordable and scalable carbon food alternatives, and changes to diet.
Is Eating Locally Better for the Environment?
Many people think that if you purchase food locally, you are benefiting the local economy and the environment. However, it’s more important to focus on what you eat, not whether it’s local.
Locally produced and purchased food does support your community’s economy, but it doesn’t necessarily lower your carbon footprint. Our World in Data found that farm-stage emissions and land use account for over 80% of the footprint for most food emissions.
Eating locally may benefit the environment if you are choosing plant-based foods over animal-based products from a farmer who takes steps to reduce their impact through use of renewable resources. However, you may prioritize benefiting the local economy and a family-run business through your food choices.
In such cases, personal choices can have a major impact on not only the environmental concerns surrounding food systems but an economic one as well.
Local Food Economics Impact Bigger Systems
At the center of economics is the law of supply and demand. The growth of local food for community and economic development is driven by demand from consumers across the country. Demand for local food can be seen in national reports, the amount of local food marketing channels, retailer reactions, and new local, statewide, and national policies.
What has the demand for local food been in the last 20 years? According to the USDA, the local food sector was valued at $4 billion in 2002, with local food sales forecast to be worth $20 billion by 2019. It simplifies matters to look at the supply side of demand to qualify just how impactful your everyday food choices are.
From 2006 to 2014 alone, farmers’ markets grew by 180%, demonstrating increased consumer interest, according to a 2015 USDA report made to Congress called Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems. Similar surges were seen in farm to school programs and other channels. The growth of CSAs, farmers’ markets, food hubs, farm to school programs, and the presence of local foods at restaurants and grocery stores are all supply-side indicators of consumer demand in the local food sector.
As consumer habits change to buying local food, these new shopping and spending patterns have driven traditional food retailers and distributors to change, too. Older companies such as Kroger and Sysco now offer products that are traceable to local sources and report on sustainability commitments. As consumers drive this change, it gets the attention of businesses determined to satisfy customer demand.
Your Food Decisions Are Being Measured
A 2016 Deloitte report Capitalizing on the Shifting Food Value Equation shows that:
- Traditional consumer drivers of taste, price, and convenience remain the same.
- However, these preferences are joined by consumer “evolving drivers” of experience, safety, health and wellness, and social impact (including local food and sustainability).
- While 49% of consumers put themselves on the traditional side of things, 51% make purchase decisions based on evolving drivers.
Your personal choices influence the food system and bigger systems beyond it at a government level, from municipal to state and federal. Retailers are challenged to offer more direct-to-consumers products through local meal kit delivery services and online CSAs. Technology allows consumers to access local farms, markets and products and still retain what they value about traditional drivers, like convenience. These changes prime the market to shift food systems toward greater sustainability.
Your food choices are the proof in the pudding. Take farmers’ markets, for example, which are often granted permits to operate on city streets or in local parks. You also support your local government and businesses by shopping at the neighborhood farmers’ market as convenience leads to you shop for other items nearby, boosting the local economy. Choices like this encourage the expansion of local food programs, policies and funding at the government level.
Local Food Systems Driven Toward Growth During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic generated an opportunity for local food systems to thrive, and some experts suggested that this could encourage a shift toward sustainable food sourcing, particularly given the increased interest from major retailers.
FI Global Insights reports that the pandemic allowed local food systems to grow beyond their scope. Consumers couldn’t locate products grown or produced nationally, and local producers couldn’t access international markets to vet the best buyers. Researchers categorized this as a “large scale socio-economic experiment” to see how various systems in different local contexts reacted to the same challenges. They found that local food systems across thirteen countries successfully innovated and adapted. Communities also played a role in organizing deliveries and promoting local food systems.
In September 2021, the USDA also announced a $3 billion investment in animal health, agriculture, and sustainability. $500 million will go toward adopting water-smart management practices and supporting drought recovery. The USDA notes that the pandemic impacted many aspects of the food chain supply and existing food systems. However, it also allowed national entities to see what adaptations were possible and needed. New initiatives to finance climate-smart farming and assistance with marketing climate-smart agricultural commodities are in the works. The USDA is also supporting pilot projects to implement climate-smart conservation practices on working lands.
All of this goes to show that your food choices matter and do have impact.
Eating Like a Climatarian
Eliminating or reducing the consumption of animal products in your household is the most effective way to lower your carbon footprint, according to Harvard University. It’s for the same reason: the cost of production grossly outweighs the cost of transportation. It’s more eco-friendly to transport plant products or plant-based products.
Remember that beef, lamb and mutton were the most harmful food products for GHG, according to Our World in Data, followed by farmed prawns. In terms of water impact, food products were measured in liters per kilogram. Cheese was the highest followed by nuts, fish (farmed), prawns (farmed), beef (dairy herd), rice, ground nuts, lamb and mutton, pig meat and others. Tofu was one of the lowest, less than wheat or rye, along with fruits and root vegetables as the lowest. Wine also had little environmental impact.
Selecting foods with less environmental impact is one primary aspect of eating like a climatarian, but that doesn’t mean your diet is restrictive.
More plants in your diet is better than mostly meat or sustainably raised meat. Sustainably raised meat may be a more ethical choice than meat derived from factory-raised livestock. Processed vegetarian meat can still be bad for you if you’re mostly eating fried seitan chk’n tenders and fries.
If you need a fast meal, a meal kit that rescues produce and limits ingredients may be the solution. You may not drastically eliminate GHG in comparison to making a homemade meal, but you are more likely to reduce food waste. Having food delivered can increase the (perceived) demand for single-use plastic containers and increase plastic waste in the environment.
Consider your personal values along with your dietary needs as you look for ways to reduce your environmental impact through mindful food consumption. Talk with your doctor or a registered dietician about a moderate approach to the climatarian diet and making it right for you, whether that’s prioritizing plants over meat or eating a more seasonal and varied diet.
Tiffany Chaney is an environmental and wellness writer dedicated to advocacy, ethics, and transparency. Chaney holds a BA in creative writing from Salem College and completed an apprenticeship in western herbalism and Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Tree of Life Wellness Center and Piedmont Herb School in Winston-Salem, NC. She is also a published creative writer and artist, currently living in Virginia.
- 7 Easy Ways to Cut Down on Meat in Your Diet - EcoWatch
- How to Participate in Veganuary 2022 - EcoWatch
- Meat Substitutes 101: Everything You Need to Know - EcoWatch