What Does it Mean to Live & Eat Sustainably?
Sustainability; a word that is at once overused and not discussed enough.
Because there is not one definition of sustainable nutrition, a sustainable diet can mean many things to many people. While one person’s definition of food sustainability may mean reducing food waste, buying humane animal products and purchasing products mindfully, another’s definition may be eliminating all animal foods, eating only organic and buying strictly local/seasonal. Neither person’s definition is wrong and each has defined a lifestyle that makes them feel confident about their food decisions and their impact on the environment.
The official Webster’s Dictionary definition of sustainability is:
sustain + ability
- The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld or confirmed.
- Environmental science. The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and therefore supporting long-term ecological balance.
I often get questions from people wanting to know if their diets are “sustainable” and what I explain is that there is no right or wrong “level” of commitment to living a sustainable lifestyle. In today’s consumer-driven, “more, more, more” society even having the seed of knowledge that your purchasing decisions have an impact on the earth’s natural resources is a great start.
While there is no set definition or set of rules defining sustainable nutrition, there are a few core dietary and lifestyle shifts that can help you become a more sustainable eater. Below are five sustainable dietary shifts I keep in mind when making my own food decisions and are a great starting point for anyone wanting to embark on a sustainable lifestyle change.
5 Ways to Eat & Live Sustainably
Eat a variety of plant-based foods.Eat the rainbow! Eating an array of colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides a variety of nutrients for health and wellness. Leading public health organizations recommend consuming a predominantly plant-based diet to lower your individual carbon footprint. Producing most plant-based foods requires less energy input in the form of fossil fuels and water than producing animal foods, while also releasing less green house gases and other production byproducts.
Mindfully buy & consume animal foods.By now you’ve likely heard what the research confirms – a diet high in animal products, like the traditional American diet, is taxing on the environment.
As someone who grew up in the American Midwest and was used to eating meat at nearly every meal, I knew the impact of my dietary choices but had a hard time breaking the habit of a meat-centric diet. Though I significantly reduce my meat intake, I still consume animal products. However, I made an important shift in the way I purchase and consume them by buying from sources I know have good farming practices and moving meat from the center of my plate to instead be a side dish or compliment to a plant-based meal.
As a registered dietitian specializing in sustainable nutrition, I often get asked if someone trying to eat a more sustainable diet should give up meat. My answer is that if you do not want to stop eating meat then instead rethink where and how you buy meat and shift the way you view meat on your plate and in your overall diet. Even reducing your overall meat consumption by one meal a week can reduce your personal carbon footprint.
Choose sustainable seafood.Let’s face it–our land is over-farmed and our seas are over-fished. Making sustainable seafood purchasing decisions is vital to the health and wellbeing of our oceans. Many seafood species are over-fished, threatening extinction and causing a shift in ocean eco-systems. Educate yourself on choosing the right species by checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides (choose your state and print to keep in your kitchen).
Eat local and in-season when possible.Get to know your local food system by attending and buying from farmer’s markets, signing up for a CSA box from a local farm, and eating foods that are fresh and in season. If you are an omnivore, get to know your local butcher and the animal farms in your area. Buying local not only reduces the miles your food travels to reach you (and the outputs of that travel), but also allows you to support and nurture your local food economy.
Make mindful food and product purchases.Choosing to live a sustainable lifestyle is more than just food, it also involves making mindful purchasing decisions for everything from household or beauty products to clothing. Buy second hand when possible, try to choose products that are sold in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging required and research companies that have sustainable ingredient sourcing commitments – the Environmental Working Group consumer guides are a great place to start!
Have you committed to living a more sustainable lifestyle?
What shifts have you made to be a more sustainable eater?