Eco Friendly Food: What It Is, Plus 5 Dietitian Suggestions

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What exactly do you mean by eco friendly?

What are examples of generally unsustainable foods?

And are sustainable foods healthy?

Find out the answer to these questions, along with five dietitian suggested environmentally friendly food in this article (plus a few eco friendly food recipes)!

Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about any major dietary changes, health concerns, or supplements. This is not a comprehensive list of all eco friendly foods. Some foods may not appropriate for individuals with certain medical conditions. See our Disclaimers for more details.

*Consumer Notice: This post contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What Do You Mean By Eco Friendly Food?

The online Merriam-Webster definition defines eco-friendly as “not environmentally harmful.”

So, things like green house gas emissions (GHGE)-such as methane, land and water use, amount of feed for livestock, etc certainly have a role to play when determining the “eco-friendliness” of a food.

But, can a food have no environmental impact on on the planet? We have trouble believing that.

Factors such as transportation, food packaging, food waste, and the like can all play a role even in the most eco friendly foods.

However, many studies show that in general, there are some foods that tend to have a lower carbon footprint than others, which brings us to the next question you are probably wondering…

What Diet Has the Least Environmental Impact?

One systematic review of vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous diets suggests that a vegan (or 100% plant based diet) is best for the environment, however, context should be taken into account, and more studies are needed.

For example, transport plays a factor in sustainability. If plant based foods must be shipped from far away, greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) will go up. At the same time, it is important to note the impact of animal products (especially meat and dairy) on GEHE as noted previously.

We know that appropriately planned plant based diets can be healthy (if you want to learn more about the planning part, check out Vegan For Beginners and Grocery Shopping Guide!). But what about affordability?

Lets talk about that next…

Is Eco Friendly Food Affordable?

One study published in the Lancet looked at what they defined as “healthy” and sustainable diets in flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets.

The study suggests that vegetarian and vegan diets (in particular, high grain ones) were more affordable for high and upper middle income countries.

Of note, we could not find any mention of dietary supplements in this study, as some eating patterns may benefit from supplementation of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iodine (disclaimer: talk to your doctor before starting a supplement).

But, if we are just looking at cost alone, many would agree that plant based whole foods are eco friendly, and generally inexpensive.

Eco Friendly Food: 5 Dietitian Suggestions

We asked Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (aka- credentialed nutrition experts) about eco friendly vegan food options, and they gave us answers!

1. Legumes

Picture of Dahl (Indian lentils) on a plate with some rice on the bottom.

Legumes are underrated! They contain important vitamins and minerals, come with good dose of plant based protein, and have lower GHGE than meat as suggested by this study.

Make them an even more eco friendly food with this tip from a Dietitian:

“Cook with dried beans or lentils instead of canned: less weight so less expensive to transport.”
-Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RDN, LDN

Check out Melissa’s recipe for Easy Spicy Lentil Chili here!

One barrier to using beans may be time it takes to cook from dried.

Looking for a canned bean based chili packed with produce? Check out this Smoky Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili with Kale and Fresh Tomatillo Salsa.

“It’s eco-friendly because it’s vegan and utilizes seasonal garden vegetables. The can from the black beans can be recycled.”

-Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, MEd, RD, LD From Sound Bites Nutrition

2. Peas

Ok, so peas may technically be a legume, but we put them in a separate category, as the whole food green pea version tends to have a bit less protein than black beans and lentils for example (but are still nutritious)!

Peas are making a comeback! In the plant based world, they have become popular in protein powders, veggie burgers, and even plant based milk!

But the humble whole food green pea tends to be the most sustainable version of the nutrient rich plant based vegetable/protein.

One eco-friendly food is peas. Peas are an eco-friendly food for 2 reasons – 1) they fix nitrogen into the soil, leaving the soil rich in nutrients after harvest. This also eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers. 2)Peas grow well and actually thrive in cool conditions, reducing the need for a large amount of water used in hot temperatures.”
-Melissa Mitri, MS, RD of Melissa Mitri Nutrition

3. Potatoes

Surprised? According to one study, potatoes have one of the lowest global warming potential amongst several other foods included in the study (both plant based and animal based foods).

One medium baked russet potato (with skin) has about 4 grams of fiber and lots of potassium – approximately 952 milligrams!

Potassium is listed as one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

4. Oats

Picture of oatmeal in a bowl with walnuts and blueberry jam.

The humble oat just had to have a spot on this list!

One half a cup of rolled oats has approximately 4 grams of fiber, some of which is insoluble (that may help lower cholesterol). With virtually no saturated fat and cholesterol, you people often thing of oats as a heart healthy food!

This eco-friendly grain is so versatile as well! I love to blend it up for black bean brownies, to use as a binder in plant based meatballs, as a base for topping with fruits, nuts and/or seeds, and so forth.

5. Apples

Apples are another example of having a low global warming potential according to one study that compared several foods.

They contain phytochemicals (compounds found in plants) and fiber that may play a role in decreasing the risk of certain diseases.

The phytochemical content in part varies depending on the type of apple and whether or not the peel is included (more antioxidant compounds in the peel)!

Picture of a white bowl with apples

What Other Factors Contribute to Food Sustainability?

1. Farming Practices

From organic to regenerative agriculture, there are a variety of practices that have suggested as more environmentally sustaining.

With so many mouths to feed, what methods are best? We don’t claim to be environmental experts, but if you are curious, a resource to check out is Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

2. Growing Your Own Food

Growing your own food gives you some control over pest management, soil, etc.

Bri Bell, RD, gives this example for home grown lettuce:

“Home-grown lettuce is super eco-friendly because there’s zero emissions from packaging, transportation, or storage. Because it’s freshly picked, you’re able to eat it when it still contains peak nutrient levels. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can easily grow lettuce in water in your windowsill from a head of store bought lettuce!”

Learn how to grow your own lettuce indoor via Bri’s article here.

3. Eco Friendly Food Packaging

*Consumer Notice: This section contains an affiliate link that is marked in this manner: (affiliate link*)”. If you click on the links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.

You’ve probably heard that single use plastic isn’t so great for the environment, but what can you use instead?

Is paper better than plastic? This is a hot debate, check out this article on the subject to learn more.

The article suggests that the bag you can reuse the most when shopping may be the best.

For some of us, that might mean a reusable bag that can be cleaned (important to wash to help keep it clean).

Here us an example of some reusable bags made from recycled plastic bottles. They can be wiped down to clean as well! (affiliate link*):

Summing It Up: Eco Friendly Food

Taking into account green house gas emissions, land and water use, the most eco friendly foods in general may tend to be whole versions of plant based foods.

When making sustainable food choices, it is also important to think about what is nutritious, affordable, and easily accessible for your area. Consider balancing these factors with what is important to you.

Is any food sustainable? We hope this article helped you clarify sustainable from least sustainable foods (in general)! Leave us a comment, and let us know if you have any other questions or topics we should cover!
And while you’re at it, why not poke around on our blog? We have many free guides from Transitioning to Veganism to The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Chocolate (you may even find more eco friendly chocolate also mentioned there)!
Lastly, don’t forget to sign up for our e-mail subscribers list if you want to be notified of new articles! May the fork be with you…

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