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Low-carbon diet: The easy way to fight global warming

Dear EarthTalk: What is a low-carbon diet and is it good for losing weight or is it only about saving the planet?

— Jane Monroe

Scranton, Penn.

 

Not to be confused with a “low-carb” diet, which involves avoiding carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta) as a way to lose weight or keep it off, a low-carbon diet — whereby you limit foods that generate a lot of carbon (CO2) emissions in their production and distribution —is indeed more about reducing your carbon footprint than your waistline. That said, proponents of a low-carbon diet say that eating with reduced greenhouse gas emissions in mind is healthier for us than the typical American diet whereby carbon-intensive meat, dairy and processed foods occupy too large a share of our overall food intake.

Feeding ourselves causes a third of all CO2 emissions, so adopting a low-carbon diet is one way each and every one of us can fight global warming.

A recent study from the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems backs up these assertions. 

Researchers correlated data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — a snapshot of what 16,000 Americans consumed over one 24-hour period — with information on the nutritional value and greenhouse gas impacts of different food items, concluding that the better a diet is for the planet, the better it is for our health. 

Furthermore, the 20 percent of Americans who eat what researchers consider a “high-carbon” diet (rich in red meat, dairy and exotic and processed foods) are responsible for almost half of the nation’s food-related CO2 emissions. The upshot is that changing the behavior and food choices of this small segment of the population could pay big dividends for public health and for reducing our overall national carbon footprint.

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Theconceptofalow-carbondietwasfirstpopularizedintheUnitedStatesbyBonAppétitManagementCo.,whichrunsmorethan1,000cafésin33statesforcorporations,universitiesandvenues.Backin2007,thecompanypartneredwiththenon-profitEcotrusttocompileandconductLifeCycleAssessmentsLCAs—measuringtheamountofCO2emittedduringagivenfoodproduct’sentirelifecycle—forthousandsofdifferentfoods.

TheseLCAsbecamethebasisforthe“FoodScores”sectionofitsEatLowCarbon.orgwebsite,whichprovidesinformationtohelppeoplereducetheircarbonfootprintsthroughfoodchoices.

BesideslaunchingEatLowCarbon.org,BonAppétit’smanagersalsoembarkedonafive-yearinternalcampaigntoratchetdowntheemissionsgeneratedbythecompany’sownoperationsandofferingsby25percent.

Thecompanystoppedbuyingair-freightedseafood,reduceditsuseoftropicalfruitbyhalf,shrankbeefpurchasesby33percentandcheeseby10percentwhilecuttingfoodwastebyone-third.Overallthesemovesshavedsome5millionpoundsofcarbonemissionspermonthoffBonAppétit’scontributiontoglobalwarming.

Thefactthatfoodandthesystemstoproduceanddistributeitareresponsibleforaboutathirdofallgreenhousegasemissionsmeansthateveryonehasalotofpotentialforfightingglobalwarmingthroughsourcinglocallyproducedandin-seasonfoodstominimizeemissions-intensive“foodmiles,”buyingonlyasmuchaswecaneattoreducewaste,andminimizingconsumptionofredmeat,dairyandprocessedfoods.Inthecaseofclimatechange,ifwedon’twatchwhatweeat,itcouldreallycomebacktohauntus.

 

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