Diet and Environmentalism

Does what you eat impact how much of an environmentalist you are?

If you ever want to start a fight in a zero waste facebook group, just bring up diet and you will be sure to have a blow up so fast even the admins can’t contain it in time.

But, the people in the zero waste group are no different than most people you run into – people get very defensive the second you discuss not eating meat and dairy products. The reason why is probably within the cultural significance around food- and how much social interaction happens over a dinner table. And as much as that is interesting and probably a whole post within itself that is not what I want to talk about today! Instead, I want to discuss if there is actually any environmental impacts of our diets, and if so, what would constitute a sustainable diet?

So let’s start with the basics:

Does what you eat have an environmental impact?

Yes, yes it does. Everything we do and consume is going to have an impact on our planet. However, every day we have a choice in order to reduce what our environmental cost is going to be for that day. In the zero waste community, for example, we talk about the impact of that disposable plate, that plastic straw, the packaging on our food, and how even what we brush our teeth with in the morning has an environmental cost to it – so it makes sense to logically conclude that what we eat will also have an environmental cost. Food has to be grown, and it takes resources and energy to do that. Then the food needs to travel from the farm to your supermarket or wherever you get food, so more resources involved. Just like the production of plastic utensils or any other commodity, the production of our food is not environmentally debt free just because we need nourishment to survive.

The impact of a meat and animal product diet

For me, facts really say more than anything so here are some fast ones! To create 1lb of beef it takes approximately 2500 tons of water. (Pimatel, 2004). This number is calculated from the amount of water the animal drank, as well as the water put into the livestock to feed the animal to raise it. By eating meat you also directly partake in the leading cause of rainforest deforestation (shown to be from livestock and feed crops (the crops we feed straight to livestock)) (Veiga, 2003). You also have contributed to the more than 500 nitrogen ocean dead zones around the world. (Zielinski, 2014) And if that doesn’t sound crazy, wait until you learn that a farm with 2500 dairy cows contributes as much waste as a city of 411,000 people. (EPA, 2014) Basically, animal agriculture is not a long term sustainable diet for our planet.  

What is the most sustainable diet?

The most sustainable diet involves one without any animal products- that is a plant based diet. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy made a statement that plant based diets are the future! (MFA Article to read more here) Although a vegan diet is known as a diet that avoids animal cruelty, there is also a huge positive environmental impact to one. By eating a plant based (vegan) diet, you save 1,100 gallons of water, 45 lbs of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalents and one animal life a day. (Scarborough, 2014) (EWP, 2011) (Ranganathan, 2016)

If you are interested in learning more about how a vegan diet is sustainable, I suggest checking out the Cowspiracy documentary, which is also where I got these facts from.

I fully began my transition to a plant based diet starting in March and haven’t looked back! This is a vegan stir fry my mom had made for me when I was first starting out.

What if I am not ready to be vegan?

Whatever your reasons are for being hesitant, I understand it can be a big change if you try to take it all on at once. For some people, going cold turkey (pun slightly intended) was easier for them. For some people, it is easier to cut out one food at a time (if you don’t like fish, cut that out first, etc). For some people, it is easier to try out something like a meatless Monday or dedicate certain days of the week where animal products are off limits. Think about what type of change is personally sustainable for you and give something new a try! Remember, it does not need to be all or nothing! Even one meal a day, or a week, will have some sort of impact.

I’m ready to make a change!

First, congratulations on deciding to work toward a more sustainable diet! There are so many resources out there for those transitioning that it would be silly not to link some of them. But my personal pieces of advice are.

  1. Go at your own pace, find a process to get to your end goal that works for you (see above)
  2. Find community. There are many vegan/plant based Facebook groups large and local! Find somewhere you jive with the atmosphere. Different Facebook groups = different people and trust me it can make all of the difference. 
  3. Remember your motivation. When you have a strong defined why it helps make everyday life feel intentional and meaningful. And it should be! Every day you are making a difference.  
  4. Eat the good vegan eats. Vegan food can be amazing and yummy. Use the app Happy Cow or google vegan eating options in your area. There are more and more all vegan places popping up (and even more with just some amazing vegan options added to your menu).

One Green Planet (Great for sustainable veganism and cute cat pics): Guide to transition to veganism

Mercy For Animal (Order a Free Guide to Vegetarianism Kit)  

PETA: Guide to going vegan



Pimentel, David, et al. “Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues”. BioScience. (2004) 54 (10): 909-918

Veiga, J.B., et al. “Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Rainforest”. UN: Food and Agriculture Oragnization

Zielinski, Sarah. “Ocean Dead Zones Are Getting Worse Globally Due to Climate Change”. November 10, 2014

“Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”.Environmental Protection Agency. 2004

Scarborough, Peter, et al. “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK”. Climactic Change July 2014., Volume 125, Issue 2, pp 179-192

“Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health”. Environmental Working Group. 2011

Ranganathan, Janet & Waite, Richard. “Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts”. World Resources Institute. April 2016

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  1. Great post Tara! I had an acai bowl for the first time the other day and I am in love like why haven’t I tried these sooner. Reminds me of your smoothie bowls ! I hope your vegan journey is going well so far 🙂

    1. Melissa! Thank you so much for reading! I am glad you loved your acai bowl. Those and smoothie bows are my always, everyday obsessions. It is going well and I hope that your recently journey into vegetarianism is also going well!

  2. You are right – this definitely always sparks a huge debate! Kind of like not reproducing is a good step for the planet…touchy subject! I was a vegetarian for many years, but even that has huge impacts on the environment if you rely on soy products for protein. I stopped vegetarianing about six years ago and ate the meat that my in-laws would hunt themselves; mostly deer and elk. Now I source my meat locally, knowing how they run their farms and raise their meat. I do limit my meat intake though because of the impact and alternatives in protein. Omnivore’s Dilemma is another good read that touches this topic, namely the horrid mass beef production.

    1. Thanks Nadine (and sorry for the horrid delay- you know when you respond to someone in your head but never actually wrote it. Guilty). I agree- if it’s not diet it is definitely population. But that’s why I love bringing it up! Gotta open the dialog somehow! Every diet is going to have some kind of impact. I do know about the impact of soy, and there are of course vegans that use palm oil etc. which is why I really stress that it’s not all or nothing- because at the end of the day there isn’t anything that’s perfect either! Thank you for taking the time to comment! I haven’t read Omnivore’s Dilemma but will definitely add to my reading list!

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