How to have a low carbon diet

4 Sep 2019
4 min read
Low carbon diet

Eat well for the planet – and your health.

You’ve heard of low-carb diets, but what about a low carbon diet? Thanks to intensive agriculture, crop farming, livestock management, packaging and logistics, the food system is responsible for a third of all global greenhouse emissions.

But making smart choices can significantly lower your carbon ‘foodprint’. Plus, it’s good for you – researchers have found that diets that are eco-friendly are also a lot healthier.

You don’t need to make massive changes to make a difference, either. Here’s how:

Limit meat and cheese

On a global scale the meat industry generates nearly 20% of the manmade greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change. Meat production is very inefficient and requires masses of grain, water and land – producing just one kilogram of beef requires 25kg of grain and around 15,000 litres of water. Plus, cows produce a lot of methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 20 to 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Cheese is also a problem because creating it requires a lot of milk from methane-producing cows – around 10 pounds of milk are needed to make just one pound of cheese.

In an ideal world, more people would become vegetarian, or even vegan, but simply cutting down your meat and dairy consumption can make a major difference to your diet’s carbon footprint. Try ‘meat-free Mondays’, or looking at meat substitutes such as Quorn – many people can’t tell the difference! And if you do buy meat, make sure it comes from a sustainable source – cheap mass-produced meat is especially damaging for the planet and very bad news for animal welfare. Check out more tips on reducing meat consumption here.

Choose local food

Buying produce locally helps to reduce the emissions associated with transporting food – and it supports food growers in your area. Try to shop at your local farmer’s market, or at least pay attention to the origin of your food (which will be noted on its label). Air-freighted food is responsible for as much as 30 times more greenhouse gases than food shipped by boat.

Check what’s in season

We’ve gotten used to having whatever food we want at any time of the year. Strawberries in winter? No problem. Pears in spring? Easy. The problem is that getting out-of-season produce to the UK means flying it in from overseas, or employing agriculturally-intensive farming methods to force them to grow year-round. Ease up on out-of-season produce (check what’s in season here) and you’ll be helping to reduce the demand for emissions-laden fruit and veg.

Avoid heavily-processed food

Processed foods have a bigger carbon footprint than raw or fresh produce. Cutting, cooking and packaging these kinds of foods requires a lot of energy, and they’re often accompanied by additional sweeteners and preservatives such as sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which are energy-intensive products themselves. Cook from scratch if you can, and choose the least processed alternative when you can’t: brown rice instead of processed white rice, for example. And make your plate count! If you have a craving for chocolate, have a few squares of dark chocolate instead of a packet of chocolate biscuits that contain loads of different, energy-intensive ingredients.

Go easy on the packaging

Packaging means waste and resource consumption. Did you know that UK supermarkets are responsible for churning out at least 59 billion pieces of plastic every year? Some of it is needed to keep food fresh, but a lot of it is unnecessary. Choose loose or lightly packaged food items where possible, and learn more about which supermarkets are doing their bit to tackle plastic waste here.

Waste not, want not

UK households throw away around 7.1 million tonnes of food every year – and almost three quarters of it (70%) was still perfectly edible. This is a problem for two main reasons. Firstly, when we waste food we’re essentially wasting all the energy that went into producing it in the first place, which just contributes to climate change. Secondly, what a waste of money!

It’s not always easy to avoid food waste, but there are lots of things you can do to help limit the amount you throw away. Start by keeping a diary of what ends up in the bin – if you can see you’re buying too much milk every week or not eating that salad before it goes off, you can make changes where necessary. Make an effort to use the food you have before purchasing more, find creative uses for slightly overripe items (you can freeze berries for smoothies or turn bananas into cake, for example), and if you have a garden, start composting! Check out Love Food Hate Waste for loads of tips, recipes and information on reducing food waste.

Small change leads to big change

Sticking to a low-carbon diet is a bit like sticking to any diet – changes don’t always come naturally and it can be tempting to reach for the biscuits! But as with any lifestyle change, taking small, manageable steps will help reinforce new patterns of behaviour. You don’t have to be saint but paying attention to your food, where it comes from and how it’s made will contribute to a healthier planet as well as a healthier you.


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