The Ins & Outs of Climate-Conscious Eating

For instance, I enjoy eating meat, and I also care about the environment. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can only those who follow a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet truly be living an environmentally-friendly life?

The idea of a climate-conscious diet and vilifying animal protein got a boost from The Lancet, a scientific and health journal. Their EAT-Lancet diet vilified protein as both unhealthy for consumption and for the planet. However, well-known Registered Dietitian and author of Sacred Cow, Diana Rodgers rebuts some of the arguments against meat in Eat-Lancet. She states a few critical thoughts to those planning to remove meat from their diets:

  • Ridding the world of animals for nutrition would not simply free up arable land for crop harvest—agricultural and animal land is not interchangeable.
  • You need grazing animals for a healthy grassland ecosystem, as their movement stimulates growth, and diversifies the soil microbiome which helps it to serve as a water and CO2 sink. In fact, 85% of grazing cattle land is land that cannot be cropped.
  • 90% of what cattle eat for feed is forage and plant leftovers that humans cannot eat, serving as upcycled food.
  • 50% of meat byproducts, such as the carcass, is used for other products like insulin, leather, footballs, and medical applications.

Overlooked Complexities

A climate-conscious diet is nuanced and complex as you can see from just looking at red meat. Even those with the best intentions may not understand its intricacies.

Let’s imagine a man hypothetically named “John” for a moment. John lives in California and loves the outdoors. He is passionate about the environment and is greatly concerned about his own carbon footprint. Because of this, he has opted for a vegetarian diet, often shaming his meat-eating friends for their “destructive” protein choices.

A few of John’s favorite locally-grown foods include avocados, peaches, almonds, and plums. Well-intentioned John may not know that these vegetarian options have their fair share of impact on the environment and that meat production is actually a massive opportunity for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction.

Let’s take avocados:

Delicious and nutrient-dense, avocados are a staggeringly popular fruit among vegetarian and vegan dieters. However, did you know that avocados are considered monoculture plants, meaning that they are typically grown on a single parcel of land each year?  

Monoculture crops are known to deplete soil because of a lack of biodiversity. Planting in the same place yearly strips nutrients from the earth, forcing farmers to use excess fertilizers to re-invigorate and restore soils for future plantings. While we know moderate fertilizer use can be sustainable, monoculture crops are generally worst for land degradation than polyculture crops.

Okay, well what about peaches?

Peaches are not the most environmentally destructive but John certainly did not realize just how large their water footprint is: it takes 109 gallons of water to make 1 pound of peaches. Peaches grown in areas with low-water reserves exacerbate water-shortage problems.

Almonds are a great treat!

They’re abundant in nutrients and energy-dense. But did you know it takes around 3.56 CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) to produce 2.2 pounds of dry almonds? This is equal to a car driving about 8 and a half miles. Not to mention, it takes 1 to 3 gallons of water to just grow one almond, not including shelling and hulling.  

While the water footprint is high, almonds can have a very small carbon footprint if responsibly farmed. To offset almond’s overall impact, be sure to mix up your nut choices—cashews, peanuts and walnuts have significantly smaller water footprints.

Please don’t take this as advice to eliminate avocadoes, peaches, and almonds from your diet; our bodies need nutrient-dense produce and nuts like these every day!

These examples are to shed some light on the the understated complexities of the foods we eat. We simply do not have the technology to properly provide transparency at every step of the supply chain with every food product to determine its water use, land degradation deforestation, and soil health, and so on.

But we can use trends to direct us to a diet that considers these factors in addition to others, like nutrient density.

Well-Intentioned Dieters

Like John, many of us quickly determine foods to be “good” or “bad,” when the truth is we often don’t know the environmental impact of how a grower farms or a processor packages. We may trust a brand, a label, or a certification, but be cognizant that each food carries with it its own unique footprint.

The only way to stop any environmental impact would be to stop…eating.

But we would be remiss if we did not circle back on our meat discussion. John vilifies his carnivore counterparts for their “destructive” meat consumption. While we know beef a significant contributor GHGs solutions, cattle operations are actually a massive part of a large-scale solution for the reduction of GHGs.

Utilizing livestock for land management and cattle grazing to increase soil microbiome ultimately helps with carbon sequestration. Regenerative ranching can have vast positive effects on our land long term.

If meat is part of your regular and varied diet, be sure to include turkey or chicken as they often require less water, less feed, and less land.

And look into sustainable cattle operations and brands that are transparent with their growing methods and ones use third parties to certify their regenerative practices or partners—you can often find this information on a brand’s website.

For the reasons you just read, some vegans who seek fruits, nuts, and dairy as a primary source of protein and nutrients can actually have a higher carbon or water footprint than a flexitarian dieter who eats one serving of meat per day, and likely struggles to get in their full daily nutrient compliment without protein powder.

Let’s help John find some alternate climate-conscious food choices, shall we?

Climate-conscious foods

Here are a few foods that fall within this category. Of course, we are not suggesting we eat only the following foods. We recommend a varied diet both for your health as well as the health of the environment.

  • Grains like quinoa, farro, and oats are much less resource-intensive to produce. They require less water and land than other foods, and can generally withstand various weather conditions, helping to reduce food waste. They are easily transported and can be stored for long periods.
  • Beans, Pulses, and Lentils are debatably the most easily accessible, affordable, and sustainable foods. These require little water to produce and are natural nitrogen stores, meaning they store nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use—even after their life cycle. They also tend to be a fair source of protein.
  • Nuts & Seeds are great sources of protein. While some nuts have a high-water footprint, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts are less water-intensive and are also a great source of protein and healthy fats.
  • Mushrooms are incredibly versatile and have a very low environmental impact. Mushrooms are excellent at utilizing byproducts of other plants for nutrients to grow—upcycling crop byproducts to support their own growth by using them as natural fertilizers. Mushrooms use as little as 2 gallons per pound and contribute nominal CO2 emissions. Additionally, they are not land-intensive crops and can be grown close together in dark areas.
  • Seaweed is a very cool plant that is full of beneficial nutritional value. It does not require any fertilizers to grow, and it can retain and store high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which can help to improve soil run-off. Bonus: it grows faster than plants on land, thus helping decrease CO2.

Regenerative ag practices

We have written at length about regenerative agriculture and its expansive role in combatting climate change. Because it is protective of existing lands AND focuses on regeneration it is debatably the most important variable in climate-conscious eating.

Many growers and farmers are now dedicating their production strategies to focusing on regeneration and sustainability. FoodInsights reports that 19% of US farmers are farming regeneratively, with Rabobank reporting that 70% of US farmers have taken steps towards implementing sustainable agricultural practices.

Because regenerative agriculture works to pull carbon from the air into stores in the soil, it quite literally has the potential to help reverse climate change. Regenerative ag is also not reserved for just organic or conventional farming.

Its strategies can be applied across the board. Brands like General Mills, Danone, Kellogg, Cargill, and Nestle, among others, are investing in regenerative technologies to rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation.

Only buy what you’re going to eat

Food waste is the most important consideration when thinking about climate-conscious eating. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates food waste is between 30 to 40% of the food supply nationally. They also state that 31% of food loss is at the retail and consumer level, equaling 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.

Food waste occurs due to many reasons—spoilage, issues during drying, milling, or transporting, processing that exposes food to damage and equipment malfunction.

In some cases, it is actually due to consumers not properly understanding the differences between the “best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels. Some well-meaning consumers will toss perfectly good foods in an effort to avoid food-borne illnesses when they are actually tossing out something that is perfectly edible.

43% of our total food waste in the U.S. comes from homes, so it is our responsibility to help combat this. Some common sources of food waste include coffee, milk, apples, greens, bread, potatoes, and cooked pasta.

So be sure to make deliberate shopping lists to avoid overbuying and cooking too much. Freeze foods or share with others if they can keep for future consumption, and know how to read your labels so you avoid throwing out perfectly good food!

Genetically-modified and engineered foods

While genetically-modified technologies have existed for some time now, the last five years have shown us the reality of what feeding a growing population will look like…and it is hitting consumers in the face.

A consumer report from Mintel detailed that the acceptance of GM technologies is rising, and consumers are now leaning into biotech as a major solution for both climate change combatant strategies and feeding the world.

Consumer acceptance of GM technologies is critical in developed countries for purchasing choices, but even more vital, and quite frankly, life-saving for underdeveloped countries that rely on higher yields and pest-control technologies to produce enough food to feed their populations.


Between higher crop yields, higher farm profits, and in some cases, lower pesticide use, GM technologies contribute to economic, environmental, and health benefits.

Studies have also shown that GM crops help reduce GHG emissions by supporting carbon sequestration in the soil. This is done by facilitating reduced tillage, lowering the need to put more land under plow, and, in turn, prevents excess CO2 emissions from land use.

Now when you see a GMO label on foods, remind yourself that you are choosing a food that is helping the world, not hurting it.

Omega 3 & 6: What’s the difference?

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Covid has prompted many of us to be more cognizant of our health. Yet statistics show that the average American has increased fat intake in the last decade. This extra fat can be stored in the body, causing weight gain, inflammation, and increased white fat stores, all precursors to health issues.

So, how much fat are we supposed to eat? Is too much omega-6 fats the issue? And if so, how can we alter our diet to obtain the correct ratio? Let’s find out.

The Fats of Today

Most Americans consume a “Western diet,” where we’re not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables, but too much sodium, sugar, and fat – specifically omega-6 fats.

But this way of eating is relatively new to us. At each meal in the 1900s, most Americans ate a large portion of carbs with their meat and vegetables; processed, high-fat foods were not readily available. But today’s diet reflects the irresistible convenience of fast foods and processed foods, putting that ratio to an astounding 15:1. The recommended amount by health officials is 4:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3.

Many of the foods we eat every day have plenty of omega-6 fats. This includes healthy nuts, seeds, and seed oils. However, fast food, fried foods, and too much oil used in food manufacturing are the biggest culprit of unhealthy omega 6 overconsumption, leading to a reduced intake of omega 3s found primarily in fatty fish, like salmon, avocadoes, and olive oil.

The disparity between omega 6 and omega 3 consumption over the last few decades could be why there has been a deluge of diseases with inflammation markers, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. As we like to say, everything is in moderation, too much of any one thing can cause a problem, and omega 6s are no exception.

For instance, eating fast food, fried food, processed food, and skipping on healthy fish, fruits, and vegetables obviously will give you diseases you would rather avoid. Excess amounts of omega 6s, over 17 grams for men and 12 for women, especially as we age, can cause low-grade inflammation and a lower fat burn rate.

Yet various health organizations, including Mount Sinai and Harvard Health, still say this is not the case, and we should not be worried about our omega 6-to-omega 3 ratio as long as we’re eating the right foods in the right amounts. Harvard Health defends Omega 6s when responsibly consumed. Citing studies from the American Heart Association show they are safe and beneficial for the heart and circulation when appropriately consumed.

What do other experts have to say about this? Are we damaging our health with our Western diet?

We spoke with Dr. Lilly D’Angelo, President of Global Food and Beverage Technology Associates, LLC, to uncover the truth about omega-6 fatty acids and their potential adverse health effects. Dr. D’Angelo is an expert in the field. During her career working in the food and beverage industry, she studied omega-6 and 3 fats and their effects on the body. 

“One commonality of these groups of fatty acids is that, they cannot be produced in our bodies by ourselves– we have to take them from our food. We have to rely on external sources”

– Dr. Lilly D’Angelo

Expert Take on Omega 3 & Omega 6 Relationship

There are pros and cons to both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega 3s contain eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), along with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA both have beneficial anti-inflammatory components and provide various benefits. Omega 6, on the other hand, contains linolenic acid (LA), and this converts to arachidonic acid and gamma-linoleic acid, which is what’s primarily found in seed oils.

These fatty acids can aid in the repair and growth of skeletal muscle tissue. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential in our diets because our bodies can’t make these components themselves. We need to get them from food!

The differences between these two can also be seen on a molecular level. Dr. D’Angelo explains that omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond at the #3 carbon counting from the end of the “tail” of a long chain fatty acid, whereas Omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond at the #6 carbon counting from the end of the “tail” of a long chain fatty acid. In the hydrogenated oil, a type of processed oil, the double bonds are removed by adding hydrogens and therefore prolong the shelf life of these oils, hence removed antioxidant benefits of these oils.

It’s like this – the more double bonds a fatty acid has, the more benefits it contains since these double bonds work like an antioxidant in the body, protecting our cells from damaging free radicals.

Many say that linoleic acid, which we know comes from Omega-6 fatty acids and has few double bonds, can cause inflammation in our arteries, blood clots, and blood vessel constriction. Research shows that EPA and DHA from Omega 3s are both anti-inflammatory, with DHA being even more beneficial than EPA. These acids cause the opposite reaction of LA improving cognitive function, lowering blood pressure, and improving eye health. This is why we need to eat MORE omega 3s than 6s.

In Defense of Omega 6…

They’re not all bad, and Dr. D’Angelo says we should not cut out all omega-6 fats from our diet. We need them, just not as much as we’re currently consuming. Omega-6 fats help us maintain bone health and metabolism and contribute to a healthy diet. But the amount and type of foods we eat determine a healthy omega 6 intake.

If we eat a healthy diet, with five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, at least 50 grams of lean protein, and 28 grams of nuts and seeds each day, then we’ll get plenty of omega 6s. Limiting the consumption of fast-food, fried foods, and too much oil will help keep us on the right track regarding the current Western diet ratio.

Initially, the recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was 10:1, but studies show that this ratio was even too much omega-6, and Dr. D’Angelo agrees. The new guidance recommends an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of at least 5:1, if not even 4:1, or 2.5:1. These ratios have been shown to have numerous health benefits, including prevention of cardiovascular disease.

So what about seed oils? Dr. D’Angelo points out that eating seed oils is perfectly fine, and they should be used instead of olive oil in some cases, like making stir-fry or deep-fried foods, because olive oil has a lower smoke point, that makes the food less tasty. Seed oils can fry your foods for a shorter period, saving nutrients. However, as with anything, moderation is key. She states:

Too much of anything isn’t a good thing.

Fruit is healthy, and we need it and should eat it daily, but too much fruit could have too much sugar for some. The same goes for omega 6. We need it for a healthy diet, but the negative effects can happen when we overdo it. When we fry, we cook with too much vegetable oil. Though it’s a good source of omega 6, it’s just too much.”

Let’s talk Omega 3s… 

As stated above, omega-3s contain both DHA and EPA. DHA is what’s found in fatty fish like salmon. It’s also in omega-3 supplements, like fish oil vitamins. We should focus on our DHA intake because it has the best protective benefits against cardiovascular disease.

When it comes to eating omega 3s and specifically DHA, the more we can consume, the better. The American Heart Association recommends eating seafood twice a week for this reason. But other foods include DHA, as well.

If you look at the labels on some of your foods, DHA may be added. Dr. D’Angelo talked about when she worked for Coca-Cola, and they added DHA into the Minute Maid Orange Juice. It was a huge seller and helped consumers get their DHA.

Adding DHA is especially common in dairy products. Dr. D’Angelo says almost every brand has some DHA: yogurts, milks, and even kids’ drinks like chocolate milk. Some snacks can have omega 3s added, but may also use high amounts of oil, so it’s essential to read the entire label before consuming.

DHA is also added to infant formula. This is because mothers naturally have DHA in their milk, and Dr. D’Angelo says pregnant women and new mothers should take DHA supplements to increase the amount of DHA they give to their babies.

A few takeaways

Focusing on our 5:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3s is crucial to maintaining good health. So too, is increasing our consumption of omega 3s any way we can. Here are some ways you can do that:

  1. Eat more fish – Fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, are the best source of DHA. Eating fatty fish twice a week is a great starting point. The list also includes trout, sardines, swordfish, mackerel, and mussels.
  2. Take a fish oil supplement – Although we recommend getting our nutrients from whole foods, Dr. D’Angelo says she even takes a DHA supplement from fish oil or another source to ensure she gets as much DHA as possible. These supplements can be found in the vitamin section at any grocery store. But always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
  3. Consider the Mediterranean diet – We’ve discussed the Mediterranean diet before on D2D because it’s full of whole foods, fish, olive oil, and more that we need to lead a healthy lifestyle. D’Angelo says that those who follow a Mediterranean diet are the exception and have the correct ratio because the diet is full of whole foods with many omega 3s.
  4. Include foods with both Omega 3 and Omega 6 properties – Although most foods have one or the other, some foods have a good ratio of both, like flax seeds, spinach, and mangoes.

Digging In with Dr. Michael Swanson

Listen to our “Digging In” podcast to hear Dr. Michael Swanson, Wells Fargo Chief Agricultural Economist tell us why he believes there’s more to the food inflation story than just the scary numbers we see in headlines, or the bigger bill at the checkout counter. Learn more about where the real drivers of higher food costs are across our modern food chain. Listen to his comments on the mistakes we could make in the battle to combat climate change – mistakes that could do more harm than good to our environment. And pay special attention to his advice for consumers on dealing with rising food costs at the supermarket. 

High food price inflation isn’t here to stay. And even with recent price increases, we’re still getting an exceptional deal on the food we buy today – and a much better deal than we did in the past. While some surprising factors will continue to place upward price pressure on certain parts of our food system, consumers still have the power to manage their food costs to avoid the worst effects of higher food costs.

It’s all on Dirt to Dinner’s podcast, Digging In, where we dig into subjects that help you better understand our modern food system and make informed choices with the food you eat.