We don’t often consider sustainability when planning a healthy diet for our families. However, selecting sustainable foods is not only important to the health of our bodies, but also to the health of our communities, and the world around us. Making small changes to your shopping habits and lifestyle can ensure that you’re eating responsibly to preserve the health of the planet.
What is sustainability?
To put it simply, sustainable eating shifts the focus to foods that are produced in a way that is beneficial for the environment through the support of local communities, farmers, farmworkers, and animals alike (1). Therefore, prioritizing sustainable foods whenever possible can help minimize greenhouse gas emissions, decrease food waste, and reduce exposure to harmful chemicals that are abundant in the food supply (1-3).
Adapting sustainable practices such as meal prep and recycling and selecting sustainable ingredients whenever possible requires little effort but can be incredibly beneficial. Below you will find some examples of sustainable foods and practices that are good for both the health of your family and the environment.
Top Sustainable Foods
Whether you usually shop at a local farmers’ market or a supermarket, there are always many options for the most environmentally-friendly vegetables, proteins, and other ingredients that can help promote sustainable eating. Here are some of the top sustainable food products that you may want to consider adding to your next shopping list (4,5).
Beans and Legumes
As one of the most sustainable protein sources available, adding beans and legumes to your diet can have a huge impact on the environment. According to a 2017 study published in Climatic Change, choosing beans in place for beef could potentially help achieve up to 74% of the reductions needed to meet the goals for the greenhouse gas emission targets in the United States. Not only that, but it could also free up 42% of cropland in the United States (6).
Besides supplying a generous dose of protein, beans are also a great source of fiber as well as manganese, selenium, zinc, and copper (7).
In addition to being a real nutrition powerhouse, broccoli deserves a place on the list of top sustainable foods available. Broccoli plants are especially effective at producing their own natural pesticides, which help ward off pests without the need for harmful chemicals and synthetic products. Like many other green vegetables, broccoli is low in calories but packed with many essential nutrients. In particular, broccoli is high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese, in addition to other important, health-protective antioxidants and plant compounds (8).
Many fruits fit into a sustainability list, but flavorful pears are taking the lead because, unlike many other fruits, they tend to ripen after picking. This may eliminate the need to transport it quickly, cutting back on fuel and greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, they can grow in a relatively wide range of temperatures which makes them available in many regions and makes them a star ingredient at community farmers’ markets. In addition, pears are sweet and delicious. They are rich in dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and copper. Pairing them with a little cheese or nuts makes them one of the top flavorful and deliciously sustainable snacks (10).
Potatoes are a staple ingredient for a healthful, balanced, and sustainable style of eating. Like broccoli and many other veggies, they have a built-in pest control system that produces natural pesticides and reduces the need for harmful chemicals and other synthetic compounds.
They also require a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and resources of other plants for growth and can be stored in the pantry or fridge for long periods of time without spoiling.
Potatoes provide a variety of micronutrients like potassium, vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin B6 (3).
Sardines are a great choice when it comes to sustainability. They’re less likely to accumulate mercury and reproduce very quickly (9). They also don’t consume other fish themselves and can be caught with minimal impact on the surrounding environment. The dietary guidelines recommend regular fish consumption, and sardines can be healthfully incorporated into a well-balanced diet. Sardines are versatile, easy to prepare, and serve as a great source of calcium, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12 (11,12).
Sweet and vibrant peas are real sustainability stars. They are easy to grow in most weather conditions, which requires less water waste and therefore, helps to conserve natural resources. They produce their own nitrogen naturally, which eliminates the need for fertilizer and boosts the nutrient content of the soil, even after being harvested (5). In addition, peas are really nutritious and provide a generous dose of protein as well as fiber, manganese, folate, and thiamin (13).
Tips for Practicing Sustainability
In addition to adding a few of the top sustainable food options into your family diet, there are plenty of other ways that you can make sure you’re eating sustainably:
Cook at home often.
Purchase from sustainable food companies and local farmers.
Start a garden.
Choose foods with minimal packaging.
Decrease food waste by only purchasing what you need.
Plan your meals in advance in order to minimize shopping trips or choose biking to the store more!
Choose certified fair trade products. Fairtrade is a global movement that prioritizes the ethical treatment of workers to protect and empower local communities. Companies that become certified have undergone rigorous audits and assessments to guarantee that they are compliant with the strict standards set out by the organization (14).
Avoid highly processed foods. Food products with many ingredients from various corners of the world have a greater carbon footprint due to increased travel and processing times.
Consider eating more plants vs animals.
About the Authors: Evgeniya Rybalkina-Evans and Mollie Linn are dietetic students and interns currently earning master’s degrees in nutrition science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Robinson S. Your Guide to Sustainable Eating. Down to Earth Organic and Natural. https://www.downtoearth.org/articles/2015-02/5906/your-guide-to-sustainable-eating. Published September 29, 2017. Accessed March 5, 2021.
Sustainability. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/. Published September 5, 2019. Accessed March 5, 2021.
Wolfram Ruby T. Sustainable Eating. EatRight. https://www.eatright.org/health/lifestyle/culture-and-traditions/sustainable-eating. Accessed March 5, 2021.
Ranganathan J, Waite R. Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts. Published September 26, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2021.
Group EW. Dirty Dozen™ Fruits and Vegetables with the Most Pesticides. EWG's 2020 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Dirty Dozen. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php. Accessed March 12, 2021.
JW. Anderson PB, R. Bailey AF, B. Bajzelj KSR, et al. Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets. Climatic Change. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-017-1969-1. Published January 1, 1970. Accessed March 13, 2021.
FoodData Central Search Results. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173796/nutrients. Accessed March 16, 2021.
FoodData Central Search Results. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/539572/nutrients. Accessed March 16, 2021.
Sustainable Fish to Eat: Marine Stewardship Council. Sustainable Fish to Eat | Marine Stewardship Council. https://www.msc.org/what-you-can-do/eat-sustainable-seafood/fish-to-eat. Accessed March 16, 2021.
Real Food Encyclopedia: Pears. FoodPrint. https://foodprint.org/real-food/pears/. Published January 7, 2019. Accessed March 16, 2021.
Home: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Home | Dietary Guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/. Accessed March 16, 2021.
FoodData Central Search Results. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/175139/nutrients. Accessed March 16, 2021.
FoodData Central Search Results. FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170419/nutrients. Accessed March 16, 2021.
The Standards. Fairtrade America. https://www.fairtradeamerica.org/the-standards/standards-library/?_standards_category=hired-labour. Accessed March 13, 2021.