Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
You’ve swapped single-use plastic bags for reusable totes; you’ve taken steps to reduce your waste, both food waste and other types. But there’s one more place you need to look if you’re working to build environmentally-friendly habits: the food on your plate.
Even if you’re trying to make smart, sustainable choices, the foods you’re eating could have a more significant impact than you realize. The food production system—and agriculture in general—is the leading cause of global environmental change. Food production alone is responsible for about 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and it uses 70 percent of all available freshwater. The process of getting many foods into grocery stores and onto your plate can fuel climate change, deforestation and damage to marine ecosystems.
Shifting your diet away from animal-based products like meat, dairy and eggs can help limit your own contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and all of the environmental problems they cause. Choosing to consume more diverse and sustainable foods might seem like a small step, but it’s one that can have an impact on the larger food production system.
So, which foods are the kindest to the environment? Here are five of the most eco-friendly choices.
See more: How to Outsmart Food Waste
Algae isn’t a food that’s commonly eaten in many households, but it’s starting to gain recognition and become more widely available. With an umami- or fish-like flavor, it’s available in plenty of different forms, like nori or seaweed noodles. It’s also highly nutritious. Algae is packed with essential fatty acids, vitamin C, protein, antioxidants and iodine.
No matter how you like your algae, it’s considered one of the best foods for the planet. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), algae is responsible for producing half of all oxygen available on Earth. The more algae grows, the more the planet benefits.
But most importantly of all, algae, seaweed and kelp are all wonderfully environmentally-friendly foods. Algae is highly sustainable, as it grows in huge quantities in oceans around the world. It can be harvested year-round easily, and there’s no need to use pesticides, fertilizers or any other chemicals.
2. Whole Grains
Whole grains are a longtime staple across plenty of cultures and regions, and for good reason. Filled with dietary fiber, plenty of minerals, an array of vitamins and antioxidants like polyphenols and phytosterols, these naturally-growing grains are filling and highly nutritious.
Additionally, according to scientific data, whole grains—specifically, grains like wheat and rye—create very little in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. They emit only 1.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide per 1 kilogram of product. That’s approximately 10 to 50 times less greenhouse gas emissions than animal-based food products. Whole grains also require far less water, taking just 7 percent of the water needed to produce beef.
The key is to choose whole grains over refined grains. Whole grains can offer both nutritional value and benefit the environment. If you’re keeping sustainability in mind, try to choose whole grains and cereals that are more diverse; opting for less common grains can help agricultural biodiversity.
See also: 3 Whole Grains to Add to Your Diet
Cacti is a common ingredient in 26 countries, including Mexico, Madagascar, Morocco and Algeria. It grows effortlessly in most dry areas of the world, and it’s able to thrive in the face of droughts, arid climates and other challenging conditions. While the prickly pear or cactus pear varieties are some of the most commonly eaten—you might know them as nopales, a staple in Mexican cuisine—there are plenty of other varieties you can try.
While these prickly plants may not look appealing at first glance, they’re both highly nutritious and pretty tasty. A cactus offers quite a lot of vitamins C and E, plus carotenoids, fiber and amino acids.
And thanks to their hardiness, cacti are fantastic for the environment. The United Nations has even referred to cacti as “green gold” because it’s a crop that’s adapting to climate change. Cactus plants can grow where other plants cannot, and they’re able to thrive in varied environments. This makes cacti highly sustainable, especially in the face of changing environments.
4. Leafy Greens
You may already know that leafy green vegetables are great for your health, offer anti-inflammatory benefits and help build strong muscles. Loaded with important nutrients like fiber and vitamins A, C, E and K, leafy greens like spinach, kale and arugula can help your body from head to toe. The WWF even calls these veggies “the most versatile and nutritious of all types of vegetables.”
And leafy greens are also a wonderfully environmentally-friendly food. They require very little in the ways of resources; these vegetables can grow just about anywhere, as long as they have soil and water. In the right environments, they grow plentifully. Leafy greens also have very low greenhouse gas emissions during their growth and harvesting processes.
5. Beans and Lentils
Beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and other legume plants are highly versatile foods. They’re a fantastic plant-based protein source, and they make a great alternative to animal protein products. Also known as pulses, these legumes are also rich in fiber and B vitamins.
Beans and lentils also offer a unique benefit for the environment. They actually “fix” the air — as beans, lentil, chickpeas or other pulses grow, they convert nitrogen into a new form that can be readily absorbed and used by other plants. It’s like legumes remove the harmful byproducts that might prevent other crops from thriving.
Additionally, beans and lentils are able to grow using green water, or rainwater that’s stored in soil by various plants. They don’t have much of a footprint when it comes to using up natural resources, which makes them easy to grow and highly environmentally-friendly foods.
Mushrooms might get a bad rap because they’re technically fungi, not plants. But with a meaty, umami-like flavor, mushrooms are a great alternative to animal protein products — and they’re delicious. Most mushrooms are rich in B vitamins, protein, fiber and vitamin D. There are thousands of edible varieties of mushrooms too, giving you plenty of diversity to try.
Mushrooms are also wonderfully sustainable. They grow where other foods cannot, and they’re incredibly low-maintenance. According to the Mushroom Council, producing a pound of mushrooms requires significantly less water and energy compared to most other agricultural crops. And during their production process, mushrooms create extremely low carbon dioxide emissions.
With no need for photosynthesis, mushrooms can thrive in just about any environment. They’ll even grow on the scraps and by-products of other crops, making it easy to grow different fungi varieties in an even more eco-friendly way.
How to Make These Environmentally-Friendly Foods a Priority
When you choose environmentally-friendly foods over other options, you’ll participate in an effort to diversify the world’s food sources. Your actions will also help make sustainable food sources more popular — and if demand increases, change can begin to happen on a larger scale.
Everyday choices matter. So, make the foods mentioned here a bigger part of your diet. Many offer both critical nutrients and act as alternatives to less eco-friendly foods, like animal-based products. You don’t have to completely eliminate your current staples; instead, you can try going plant-based for one day a week, or dedicating one week each month to plant-based meals. It’s also easy to incorporate more of the environmentally-friendly foods mentioned here into recipes every week.
You can get started with recipes that include foods like leafy greens, mushrooms, beans, algae and more right here:
- Smothered Mushrooms
- Cashew Broccoli Kelp Noodles
- Lemon Garlic White Beans & Mahi Mahi
- Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Pesto
- Okra Mushroom Gumbo with Red & White Beans
From Clean Eating