I want to live the greenest life possible, but it’s hard to know where to start. There are so many things to consider from the clothes we wear to the way we commute to work. I believe the best place to start in order to live the greenest life possible is through minimalism. Purge your home of the items you don’t need and simplify your life. But what’s the next step? How do we incorporate green living into our daily lives? I believe the best place to start is with the necessities. We all need food to survive, and the way we eat, shop, and prepare it can have a significant impact on the environment.
I’d like to know if there is an optimal diet for both good health and green living? The problem is in my research, there is so much conflicting information. I’ve seen people promote plant-based diets while others dismiss them as deficient. I’m bombarded with information about veganism, vegetarianism, the paleo diet, keto, and every other trendy diet. It seems like for every article showing the benefits of one diet, there’s another discussing the dangers. How can a person get through all the noise and focus on what the evidence says? What is the greenest and cleanest way to eat?
Dietary guidelines frequently change, but I believe there are two ways to know how to eat right: look to our past and evaluate which nutrients we need. I’m not a dietitian, so I’m no expert, but based on what I’ve read a healthy diet should consist primarily of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein. This is pretty consistent with what our ancestors ate. The diets were primarily plant-based with some unprocessed meat and dairy products. Foods that are processed, refined grains, fried foods and those high in sugar and saturated fats should be avoided. Of course, all of this probably seems like common sense. We’ve known for a long time that vegetables are good for us and junk food is not. But trying to eat a diet that’s both good for health and the planet becomes much trickier when we get into plant-based vs omnivorous discussions. And there’s a lot of disagreement about whether or not meat and dairy products are good for us.
If our ancestors ate meat and dairy products, why can’t we? A part of the problem is the ethics of factory farming and how we process meat and dairy. It’s a far cry from what our ancestors ate. Nowadays, meat and dairy is highly processed and has been linked to a number of diseases including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Conversely, a number of studies show a lower rate for these diseases of those who eat primarily plant-based diets. However, I’m not convinced a rigid diet of only plants and no animal products is optimal or realistic.
There are a lot of reasons a person could go vegan or vegetarian and there are plenty of benefits to cutting out meat and dairy. In fact, I have a number of friends who practice veganism or vegetarianism, and I wholeheartedly support their decision to do so. However, I’m striving to live not only a healthy, eco-friendly life, but a natural one as well. The issue with veganism for me is the need to supplement, particularly with B12 vitamins. A person choosing to cut out animal products can also risk deficiency of other nutrients if they don’t carefully follow a healthy, regimented meal plan. Likewise, it seems unnatural to me to give up on good sources of nutrition and rely on supplements when there are plenty of nutrient-dense animal products like salmon, liver, eggs, shellfish, etc. Our ancestors did not need supplements to survive. Surely there’s a happy medium that includes a diet of mostly plants with very few ethically-sourced animal products. Many of those in the green living community would disagree with me, but I advocate for eating less meat and dairy as opposed to cutting it out altogether. For one, it’s more realistic to expect people to cut back than to give up. You’re less likely to run the risk of being deficient of certain nutrients. And from a biological stand point, it’s more natural to include small amounts of animal products in you diet as our species has done for millennia.
So what nutrients do we need and what are the best sources for them? Can we get most of our nutrition from a primarily plant-based diet? According to NutrientsReview and Health.com these are the essential vitamins and minerals we need and the best sources to find them:
Vitamin A (retinol) – liver, fish oil, cheese, milk, egg yolk, leafy vegetables
Vitamin B1 (thiamin) – dried yeast, pine nuts, soybeans
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) – beef liver, fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables
Vitamin B3 (niacin) – wheat, buckwheat, millet, peanuts, spirulina, bread, peaches, meat
Vitamin B5 (panthotenic acid) – leafy green vegetables, grains, eggs, seafood
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxin) – sweet potatoes, grains, avocado, bananas, pistachios, liver
Vitamin B7 (biotin) – almonds, seeds, walnuts, strawberries, mushrooms, broccoli, avocado
Vitamin B9 (folic acid, folate) – grains, leafy greens, beets, liver, avocado, asparagus, artichokes
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) – animal foods, meat, and eggs
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – most vegetables and fruits
Vitamin E (tocopherol) – sweet potatoes, seeds, kiwi, dark leafy vegetables, sardines, salmon
Vitamin K (naphthoquinones) – dark leafy vegetables, pine nuts, tuna, vegetable oil
Choline (vitamin Bp) – corn, beans, chickpeas, beets, organ meats, seafood
Calcium – fortified cereals, almond milk, oat milk, sardines, kale, dairy products
Chloride – salt
Chromium – broccoli, grape juice, potatoes, whole-wheat bread
Copper – nuts, seeds, potatoes, tomatoes, oysters
Iodine – salt, seaweed, beans, yogurt, cheese, tuna
Iron – organ meats, clams, potatoes, beans, lentils, spinach
Magnesium – brown rice, peanuts, mackerel, whole wheat bread, spinach
Manganese – raisins, oatmeal, spinach, pineapple, nuts
Molybdenum – grains, nuts, leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, organ meats
Phosphorus – meat, cheese, seeds, sardines, milk
Potassium – bananas, avocado, spinach, citrus fruits, beans, fish
Selenium – nuts, rice, whole-wheat bread, fish, poultry, eggs
Sodium – salt
Zinc – nuts, seeds, whole-wheat bread, oysters, cheese, chicken, seafood
Isoleucine – lamb, chicken, turkey, legumes, seeds
Histidine – beef, chicken, turkey, fish, cheese
Leucine – beef, chicken, turkey, legumes, nuts, seeds
Lysine – beef, pork, chicken, sardines, eggs, beans, peas, nuts
Methionine – beef, pork, fish, cheese, egg whites
Phenylalanine – meat, cheese, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts
Tryptophan – meat, salmon, oysters, cheese, spinach, asparagus, seeds, beans
Threonine – meat, fish, cheese, beans, seeds
Valine – meat, fish, cheese, seeds, nuts
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – flaxseed oil, seeds, walnut oil, walnuts
Linoleic acid – sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, pecans, sesame oil
This isn’t a complete list. There are more foods that contain these minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and fatty acids, but these are just some common sources. It’s clear from the list that most of the nutrients we need come from vegetables, but some, especially B12, come directly from animal products. And not all foods are alike. Some are abundant in multiple nutrients. According to Healthline and Medical News Today some of the most nutrient-dense foods include salmon, kale, seaweed, garlic, shellfish, potatoes, liver, sardines, blueberries, egg yolks, sweet potatoes, legumes, and dark chocolate. Fortunately for me, I love all of those things and have no trouble incorporating them into my diet.
How you get your food also matters. I usually opt for fresh produce over canned goods, but there’s evidence to support that canned produce still has nutritional value. However, BPA, a chemical used in packaging can be found in trace amounts of canned goods. To limit one’s exposure, fresh produce is best. I plan on buying most of mine from local farmer’s markets anyways, but canned goods have the benefit of lasting longer. The cooking process can also affect food. Naturally, frying vegetables is not as healthy as eating them fresh or raw, but what about cooking, steaming, and boiling? Water-based forms of cooking like poaching, simmering, and boiling can result in loss of certain nutrients, but if the liquid is consumed, much of the nutrition is retained. Fortunately, delicious vegetable stocks can be made and used for soups. Grilling, roasting, baking, and broiling helps improve flavor, but can also result in loss of nutrients, but steaming is one of the best ways to cook vegetables to preserve their nutritional value.
Healthline offers the following tips for reducing nutrient loss while cooking:
- “Use as little water as possible when poaching or boiling.
- Consume the liquid left in the pan after cooking vegetables.
- Add back juices from meat that drip into the pan.
- Don’t peel vegetables until after cooking them. Better yet, don’t peel at all to maximize their fiber and nutrient density.
- Cook vegetables in smaller amounts of water to reduce the loss of vitamin C and B vitamins.
- Try to eat any cooked vegetables within a day or two, as their vitamin C content may continue to decline when the cooked food is exposed to air.
- Cut food after — rather than before — cooking, if possible. When food is cooked whole, less of it is exposed to heat and water.
- Cook vegetables for only a few minutes whenever possible.
- When cooking meat, poultry, and fish, use the shortest cooking time needed for safe consumption.
- Don’t use baking soda when cooking vegetables. Although it helps maintain color, vitamin C will be lost in the alkaline environment produced by baking soda.”
Based on everything I’ve read about good health and the optimal diet, I believe the best way to eat is a diet that consists of mostly vegetables and some fruits and a very small amount of healthy meat and dairy products. I’m not sold on any diet that requires supplementation or might causes nutrient deficiency. That being said, where we buy our foods and how we shop can be morally questionable. Many people choose to go vegan or vegetarian for the sake of animal rights and not necessarily diet. Is it possible to get our meat and dairy products in an ethical way?
Greener Grocery Shopping
I’ve been working on updating my dietary habits. I’ve never paid close attention to what I eat or where I get it from. But now that I’m trying to live a green and healthy lifestyle, what I eat and where I buy it has become very important to me. In a previous blog I looked into the healthiest diets. I believe the best diet is one that consists of primarily vegetables and fruits and a very small amount of animal products. There’s a lot of disagreement in the Green Movement, however, in regards to the meat and dairy industry, particularly about the ethical dilemma of factory farming and the impact on climate change. If I’m going to commit to an eco-friendly lifestyle, I want to have as little impact on the planet as possible, and it’s not just animal products that have an impact. It’s how and where we shop, too. So what is the best way to grocery shop? Here are some guidelines to green up your grocery trip:
What groceries should I buy? Which ones should I avoid?
After doing a lot of reading about food and nutrition, I’ve developed my own dietary guidelines, but I’m no dietician. It’s important that each individual make their own decisions based on their own health needs. For me, I believe the healthiest diet is about 3/4 vegetables and fruits and 1/4 healthy meat and dairy options. I’ve swapped out dairy milk for oat milk because I love the taste and it has more calcium. I still enjoy yogurt and real butter though. As far as meat goes, I try to eat as little as possible, but do enjoy chicken and very small amounts of beef on occasion (preferably less than once a week). Incidentally, foods that are not good for health are often not good for the environment either. For instance, processed foods and junk food come in more packaging than fresh produce or canned goods. I also avoid the frozen food section unless it’s for frozen vegetables and fish. By opting for a diet that’s primarily (or entirely) plant-based, you can avoid a lot of excess packaging.
What about meat and dairy?
The meat and dairy industry gets a lot of heat because of biodiversity loss, methane gas released from livestock, the unethical treatment of animals, and a number of health problems associated with the consumption of animal products. I’m a huge advocate for eating less meat and cutting out dairy when possible, but I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian. I believe humans are omnivores and should consume very small (much smaller than the average diet) of healthy meat, fish, eggs, and some dairy products. However, I don’t want to support factory farms that treat animals poorly and contribute to climate change. I believe the best solution to this problem is to buy from local farmers who are committed to raising livestock ethically that are free-range and healthy. I’m going to try to reduce my consumption of meat and dairy and what little I do buy, I’d like to get from local farmers.
Where should I buy my groceries?
Where you buy your groceries is just as important as what you buy. Since I’m trying to eat mostly fruits and vegetables, I’d like to get most of my produce at the local farmer’s market. There are a few in my hometown. The great thing about buying local is that you support the community and give your money to people instead of major corporations. It also cuts down on burning fossil fuels since the produce doesn’t have far to travel. There are a small number of items that I buy from the regular grocery store, but I can find most of what I need at the farmer’s market. I also enjoy going to Mama Jean’s because they sell a lot of local items and support eco-friendly businesses. You can also buy items in bulk such as rice, pasta, spices, nuts, etc. By doing this, you can avoid unnecessary packaging. Another option is growing your own produce and eliminating the need for shopping for those items altogether. I’d love to start gardening again soon.
How can I limit my plastic waste while grocery shopping?
Speaking of unnecessary packaging, what are some other ways to green up the way we grocery shop? A part of the problem is all the plastic waste; plastic produce bags, plastic shopping bags, plastic containers. It seems like everything comes in plastic. This is a major issue because less than 10% of the plastic produced is recycled. It takes a very long time to break down and oftentimes leaches microplastics into lakes and rivers. Plastic has caused major environmental disruptions. So how can we end our dependency on it? Here are a few things we can do:
- Bring your own bag to the grocery store
- Bring your own produce bag when buying fruits and vegetables
- Buy what you can in bulk from Whole Foods or similar stores
- Avoid single-use, disposable items (bottled water, plastic cups, straws, etc.)
Now that I know a little more about grocery shopping, I’d like to commit to a plan:
- Buy what I can from local farmer’s markets in order to avoid factory farming, importing goods, and excess packaging.
- Buy other items from eco-friendly businesses like Trader Joe’s and Mama Jeans.
- Bring my own bags and make small, weekly trips instead of big ones that run the risk of food waste.
Ten Tips for Preventing Food Waste
I’ve revamped my dietary plans and now I have goals for greener grocery shopping. The last thing I’d like to focus on is preventing food waste. According to estimates by the Economic Research Service, nearly 30% to 40% of food gets wasted in the United States. This number is alarming. Nearly half the food produced will ultimately end up rotting in a landfill. This is a devastating reality, and I believe we can do better. Here are 10 tips to prevent food waste and green up your eating habits:
Use all parts of the food
Did you know you can make a delicious vegetable stock with the parts of the produce you don’t eat? Vegetable scraps are often discarded, but you can boil them to make a healthy and delicious vegetable stock to be used for soup or other recipes. I always put the cut bits, stems, peels, etc. in the compost bin, but it never occurred to me that I could boil these as well to make a healthy stock. According to seriouseats.com you can use most vegetable parts, but not all. Avoid broccoli and cauliflower because it can make the stock bitter. You should also make sure you’ve washed all the dirt off the peels. But you can use the skin, top, roots, and peels of most vegetables. Just place in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain out the liquid and you’ve got stock!
Familiarize yourself with expiration dates
With the exception of baby formula, the FDA doesn’t have laws regarding expiration dates on food products. The date printed does not always mean the food is no longer safe to eat. Before you throw out what could be otherwise good food, examine it. Is there mold? Does it smell? Is it meat-based (something I would NOT encourage eating past its date). Consumer Reports gives the run down on whether or not expired food can still be eaten.
Commit to the meal
Whether it was cooked at home or ordered in a restaurant, I’m working to resist the urge to toss out leftovers. Restaurant portions are often much larger than they need to be which means the meal will end up in the refrigerator. It’s never as good the second time around, but committing to finishing meals will not only reduce food waste, but it will save money, too.
Store your food correctly
Did you know if you store onions with other produce, it’ll cause them to spoil quicker? Or if you put vegetables and fruits in the same crisper, the fruit can cause the vegetables to rot faster? Knowing how to store your produce can help you keep it longer. I found a fantastic video by Sweet Simple Vegan that covers how to store fruits and vegetables. It never occurred to me that I’ve been storing my produce wrong for so long!
Buy only what you need
It’s easy to overbuy when grocery shopping. Sometimes I end up with extra food I wouldn’t normally eat because of one ingredient in a recipe. This year, if I have something in my pantry I don’t use, I’ll try to find new recipes to get all ingredients eaten. My goal is to make sure everything is eaten before I go out and buy more.
Plan your grocery trip
There are a few things you can do to green up your grocery shopping. Make a list so you know exactly what you’re buying. Shop local and try to get as much as you can from farmer’s markets. Buy from bulk bins to eliminate excess packaging. Avoid processed foods and opt for natural and organic options. Having a meal plan ready for the week, can help you determine what you’ll need. Meal planning is something new to me, but I’m trying to be more organized in the kitchen in order to avoid food waste. Also, take an inventory of what’s already in your pantry, so that you don’t buy duplicates.
Eat less meat and dairy
A lot of controversy surrounds the meat industry for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the impact it has on the environment. It’s estimated that the meat and dairy industry accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases. Why? Part of the problem is deforestation to make space for livestock. Another problem is that cows and sheep emit methane gas on account of the specialized bacteria in the gut. Carbon Brief gives a good break down of various diets and the impact they have on the environment. By opting for a more plant-based diet or going vegan/vegetarian altogether, we can significantly lower our carbon footprint and be healthier.
Cook more, eat out less
There are many reasons why we should opt for cooking instead of eating out: it’s cheaper, it’s healthier, but it’s also better for the environment. Cooking at homes means controlling the portions and not wasting any excess. Safety regulations, though necessary, often result in mass amount of food waste in restaurants. And the best part about eating at home: whatever you don’t eat can be composted!
Do you have a compost bin? It’s super easy. I love having a place to put my kitchen scraps, yard waste, and other compostable items. Composting is also great for gardening. For a comprehensive guide, EarthEasy covers all the do’s and don’ts of composting.
Donate what you don’t eat
Food is one of the most needed items at charities, especially around the holidays. There are some items, however, that local food banks cannot take. Do not bring opened food or cans that have been punctured or dented. Make sure you check expiration dates before you bring in items to donate. Some food banks take expired items, but it’s always good to call and ask first. The best items to bring are canned goods and foods that don’t require refrigeration like apples, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables.
Let’s make this the year we waste less food!