Study finds simple diet changes could reduce carbon footprint, increase diet quality

Image of a turkey burger

A new study suggests that making simple dietary swaps could reduce the carbon footprint in the U.S. by more than 35% along with improving overall diet quality.

The study simulated the environmental and health impacts of simple dietary substitutions in a typical American diet. The researchers used known information on the greenhouse gas emissions of specific foods to identify high-carbon foods, or foods that contribute most to the population’s total dietary carbon footprint and have the highest emissions per gram of food produced. They then identified simple swaps that people could make from high-carbon food sources to lower-carbon food sources, such as replacing a beef burger with a turkey burger, with no other changes to the diet. 

Using dietary intake data from a nationally representative sample of nearly 8,000 U.S. children and adults, the researchers modeled what would happen if all participants in the sample made the dietary switches. They found that if everyone who ate the high-carbon foods swapped to a lower-carbon substitute, the total dietary carbon footprint in the U.S. would be reduced by more than 35%. Further, these changes would improve overall dietary quality by 4–10%.

According to the study authors, compared to more substantial changes, like going vegan, these simple substitutions may be easier for consumers to implement and reach a wider audience.

The NHLBI-funded study appeared in Nature Food.