Wondering how you can help with climate change? Try adopting a sustainable eating approach known as the climatarian diet. Introduced by the nonprofit organization Climates Network, the climatarian diet favors plant-based foods that have the least impact on the environment.
While only 4 percent of Americans say they follow a plant-based diet — which can be vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or some other variety where plants are prioritized over meat — more than half would be willing to eat more plant-based foods if they knew more about the environmental effects of their food choices, according to a 2020 survey by Yale University and Earth Day Network (PDF).
Here, we cover what a climatarian diet looks like, the pros and cons of following it, and a sample menu to get you started.
There are a couple of reasons many people choose to adopt a climatarian diet. See if one or both resonate with you.
The number of climatarian diet types is technically limitless. “Diets that are mostly plant based, minimally processed, and contain moderate amounts of meat, dairy, and eggs are generally climate-friendly,” says Michael Clark, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in England who studies the impact of dietary choices on environmental sustainability and human health.
Nonetheless, a handful of commonly recognized diets could be considered climatarian.
People who follow a vegan diet typically only eat plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, soy, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and plant-based dairy alternatives, per Food Insight. Vegan diets don’t include any animal foods, such as eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, and animal byproducts such as honey.
A vegetarian diet focuses on plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, according to Food Insight. This eating pattern also allows eggs and dairy foods.
A pescatarian diet is a variation of a vegetarian diet. It allows fish and occasional servings of eggs and dairy products, explains Food Insight.
According to Cleveland Clinic, the flexitarian diet is a cross between full vegetarian and vegan with occasional servings of animal products. It focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, but still allows for some meat.
In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission released a report outlining key elements of a healthy, climate-friendly diet. Their findings were published in The Lancet. According to the report and input from coauthor Abhishek Chaudhary, PhD, these are the foods to eat and limit or avoid on a climatarian diet:
We gathered several examples from Tewksbury to give you an idea of what meals might look like on a climatarian diet. She adapted the following meals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) sample menus so they would be more climate-friendly, where appropriate.
Breakfast 1 whole-wheat English muffin with 1 tablespoon (tbsp) all-fruit preserves, 1 hard-cooked egg, and 1 cup water or unsweetened coffee or tea
Snack 2 tbsp raisins, 1 ounce (oz) unsalted almonds
Lunch Tuna salad sandwich made with 2 slices rye bread, 2 oz Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)–certified tuna, 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 tbsp chopped celery, and ½-cup shredded lettuce, with a side of 1 medium peach or other local fruit and 1 cup local fat-free milk
Dinner 3 oz cooked local chicken breast, 1 large sweet potato (roasted), ½-cup succotash (limas and corn) with 1 tsp tub margarine, and 1 cup water or unsweetened coffee or tea
Breakfast Creamy oatmeal with ½-cup uncooked oatmeal, 1 cup local fat-free milk, 2 tbsp raisins, 1 tsp brown sugar, with a side of 1 cup local fruit juice
Snack 1 cup seasonal, local fruit
Lunch White bean–vegetable soup made of of 1 ¼ cup chunky vegetable soup with pasta, ½ cup white beans, ½ cup celery sticks, plus a side of 6 saltine crackers and 1 cup local fat-free milk
Dinner Spinach lasagna roll-ups with 1 cup lasagna noodles (2 oz dry), ½-cup cooked local spinach, ½-cup local ricotta cheese, 1 oz local part-skim mozzarella cheese, and ½-cup tomato sauce, along with 1 oz whole wheat roll with 1 tsp tub margarine, and 1 cup local fat-free milk
Breakfast Breakfast burrito with 1 flour tortilla (8 inches in diameter), 1 scrambled egg, ⅓ cup black beans, 2 tbsp salsa, along with ½ large grapefruit or local fruit, and 1 cup water or unsweetened coffee or tea
Snack 3 tbsp hummus and 5 whole-wheat crackers
Lunch Taco salad with 2 oz of tortilla chips, 2 oz cooked ground turkey, 2 tsp oil (to cook turkey), ¼ cup beans, ½ oz local low-fat cheddar cheese, ½ cup chopped lettuce, ½ cup avocado, 1 tsp lime juice (on avocado), 2 tbsp salsa, along with 1 cup water or unsweetened coffee or tea
Dinner Tofu vegetable stir-fry with 4 oz local firm tofu, ½-cup chopped cabbage, 2 tbsp chopped sweet red peppers, 2 tbsp chopped green peppers, 1 tbsp oil (to cook stir-fry), along with 1 cup cooked brown rice (2 oz dry), ½ cup local plain fat-free yogurt with ¾ cup local fruit, and 1 cup water or unsweetened coffee or tea
There are many benefits to adopting a climate-friendly diet. Consider these perks when deciding whether to change your eating habits.
Food production is the largest cause of global environmental change and is responsible for up to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, per The Lancet report. Following a climatarian diet will almost certainly reduce these harmful emissions, Dr. Clark says. If everyone switched to a vegan diet, for example, we could cut food-related emissions by 70 percent by the year 2050, according to projections published in March 2016 in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers also predict that shifting to a more sustainable food system will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, biodiversity loss, and water and land use. Currently, agriculture occupies 40 percent of global land, while food production accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use, The Lancet report notes.
Your diet qualifies as climate-friendly if its carbon footprint equals less than 2,000 g of CO2 emissions per day, according to an article published in May 2019 in Environmental Science & Technology. For reference, following the U.S. dietary guidelines results in the highest carbon footprint (3.83 kilograms, or 3,830 g of CO2 per day) compared with recommended diets in Germany, India, the Netherlands, Oman, Thailand, and Uruguay, according to research published in March 2021 in Nutrition Journal.
Shifting to a healthy, sustainable global diet will mean making major changes, including a 50 percent reduction in global consumption of red and meat, and a greater than 100 percent increase in consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, per The Lancet report.
However, even small changes can make a big difference. “You don’t have to go entirely toward a plant-based diet, but going in that direction will have benefits,” Clark says.
In fact, swapping just 10 percent of your daily caloric intake from beef and processed meat for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes could lower your food-based carbon footprint by 33 percent, according to research published in August 2021 in Nature Food.
A climate-friendly diet may carry health benefits. “People in North America are only eating about 60 percent of what they should be eating in fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Chaudhary, who’s also an assistant professor in the department of civil engineering at Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. Moving toward an eating pattern that emphasizes plant-based foods, and reduces red meat and sugar, can save an estimated 11.1 million deaths per year in 2030, reducing premature death by 19 percent, per The Lancet report.
“In the U.S., most of the benefits would come from a reduction in obesity, heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers,” Clark says.
Consumption of processed meats, for example, is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, according to a review published in 2017 in International Journal of Preventive Medicine. Meanwhile, a study published August 2019 in Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that diets high in plant foods and low in animal foods are associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease.
“You don’t have to bring your meat consumption down to zero, but if you can cut it by 10 to 20 percent, it would be good for you and the planet,” Chaudhary says.
Depending on where you live, it may cost less to eat a climate-friendly diet. In one cost-comparing study, published in October 2021 in The Lancet Planetary Health, healthy and sustainable diets (such as vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian) were up to 34 percent cheaper than current diets in high-income countries like the United States.
To put those savings into perspective, the researchers estimate that the typical western diet costs about $50 per person every week, flexitarian diets cost around $42, vegetarian $34, and vegan $33. The exception: Pescatarian diets, which include more fish and seafood, can cost 2 percent more than current diets.
Yet this same study found that climate-friendly diets are up to 45 percent more expensive in low-income countries. So, the savings may depend on where you live.
Like most diets, the climatarian diet has its share of downsides. Knowing what they are can help you decide if this diet is a good fit for you — or figure out how to tweak it so it is.
A climatarian diet may be good for the planet, but “there’s no guarantee that a climatarian diet is going to be healthy,” Chaudhary says.
For example, while many diets in India are low-carbon, perhaps because the population’s meat intake is relatively low, residents are deficient in 11 out of 25 essential nutrients, according to research published in April 2021 in One Earth. As a result, one-third of children under age 5 are undernourished and 61 percent of deaths in India can be attributed to chronic disease, the study notes.
There’s also a risk of nutrient deficiencies when making climate-friendly food choices.
For example, the climatarian diet encourages reducing red meat consumption and increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. But while adding more plant-based foods to your diet will help you achieve other micronutrient requirements, cutting down on meat may lead to deficiencies in vitamin B12 and vitamin D, Chaudhary says. “So you have to be really careful.”
Many people struggle to adopt a new eating pattern when following a diet — and going climatarian is no different. “From the experiences and conversations I’ve had, one of the biggest barriers to a climatarian diet is overcoming food and taste preferences,” Clark says.
For example, if you typically reach for beef when cooking and ordering at restaurants, changing to chicken, fish, or plant-based proteins may be a big adjustment. Making big adjustments in your eating style can be tough to make and stick with.
Following the climatarian diet doesn’t require incorporating fitness into your routine. Yet regular physical activity can improve brain health, reduce your risk of disease, strengthen your muscles and bones, and improve your ability to do everyday activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exercise is also important if you want to reduce or maintain body weight, per an article published in 2014 in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.
Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, EarthDay.org is an international organization working to drive positive environmental action. Visit their site to learn about how food and other lifestyle choices impact the environment. Curious how your current food choices stack up in the face of climate change? The site offers a roundup of online calculators to help you understand your food’s carbon footprint (or ‘foodprint’).
Run by the nonprofit Climates Network, Climatarian.com is where you’ll find answers to all your questions about the climatarian diet. Learn what to eat, what to avoid, what benefits to expect, and simple tips to get started. Go in-depth with articles about how the climatarian diet affects health, climate, and nature.
United States Environmental Protection Agency
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the place to seek info on environmental topics like food and climate change. Plus, use their greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator to see how much CO2 is released every year by cars, households, power plants, and more. Then, learn how to reduce your impact.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Formed in 1988, the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a United Nations group that studies climate change. It provides regular assessments of its findings and offers suggestions to mitigate any future risks. Check out the IPCC’s 2019 special report for the latest updates on how we’re doing climate-wise — and what we need to do to improve.
EAT Forum
EAT Forum is a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the global food system. They lead several initiatives designed to introduce sustainable food patterns into businesses, countries, and cities. Visit their site to learn how to get involved and sign up for their newsletter. While you’re there, check out their report on healthy, sustainable diets.
Switching to a climatarian diet can not only lower your carbon footprint but also carries health benefits. Eating more plant foods and fewer processed foods and red meats may lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, and reduce your odds of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
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