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What is the Climatarian diet? Foods you can eat to minimize your carbon footprint in 2022

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If your New Year's resolution is to help combat climate change, the food you eat could make a big difference.

A Climatarian diet focuses on reducing your carbon footprint with plant-based, locally sourced produce, according to nutrition app Lifesum.

Increased carbon emissions are drastically changing our planet, including rising temperatures and sea levels, which contribute to more heatwaves, drought and storms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A Climatarian diet has the potential to not just help the planet but also improve your health, according to Dr. Alona Pulde, a family practitioner specializing in nutrition and lifestyle medicine at Lifesum.

A major component is reducing animal food consumption, particularly beef, which contributes to higher emissions than plant foods, according to Pulde.

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Steps like reducing meat consumption and shopping locally can ease your effect on the environment, but Maggie Gill, a nutritionist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, warned that climate-friendly diets should be practiced in moderation.

"We need to eat a balanced diet," said Gill, "Sure, the production of beef and lamb and milk cannot be disassociated from the production of the greenhouse gas methane. But we couldn’t produce enough calories and protein to feed the world if we banned the keeping of sheep and cattle."

Replacing too much meat with plant-based foods will also have a high environmental footprint, Gill points out. Cattle and sheep have an important role in our ecosystem of turning grass, something inedible to humans, into high-quality protein, Gill said.

Pulde also stressed moderation, pointing out that many of her clients get intimidated by the demands of a Climatarian diet.

"Some people...see the changes that they have to make, and they seem so big that they just don't do anything at all," Pulde recalled. "It can really be incremental changes."

Changes can be as simple as swapping out meat a few times a week, or eating a climate-friendly breakfast instead of struggling to change all three meals, said Pulde. 

"I recommend plant-based options generally, but when it comes down to specific foods, there’s no one-size-fits all answer. It’s important to meet people where they’re at and consider their culture, taste preferences, nutritional needs and level of physical and economic access to different foods," said Brent Kim, program officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

That being said, here are some foods recommended by experts you could include in your daily diet that could mitigate your effect on the climate:

1. Lentils and beans

"These eco-heroes are delicious and nutritious, and replacing beef with lentils and beans could get us up to 74% closer to meeting our carbon emissions," said Pulde.

2. Local and seasonal fruits and veggies

"These have a particularly low carbon footprint, and buying local and seasonal reduces processing, packaging, transportation and food spoilage," said Pulde.

Match your selection of fruit and vegetables to local seasonal availability, but not to the extent of prejudicing healthy consumption, Gill recommends.

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3. Whole grains

These include pasta, brown rice and wheat.

"Lots of health benefits and less processing and energy requirements environmentally, which lowers our carbon footprint," said Pulde.

Certain dishes can combine beans, veggies and whole grains into one meal.

"I grew up with a lot of Asian cuisine, so my ideal nutrient-dense and sustainable meal is miso soup with edamame, seaweed, tofu, broccoli, brown rice and sautéed shiitake mushrooms," said Kim.

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4. Nuts and seeds

The most eco-friendly include peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds and pumpkin seeds – great protein sources with a lower carbon footprint, according to Pulde.

5. Chicken

Meat production, particularly beef, requires more land and water, and has higher carbon emissions. Swapping beef for chicken can decrease your carbon footprint by nearly half, Pulde said.

And here are some foods to avoid:

1. Beef and lamb

These types of meat are often primary contributors to environmental damage. In fact, beef, mutton and milk production contribute 80% of total greenhouse gas emissions among livestock, said Pulde.

2. Palm oil

Any food that contains palm oil contributes to deforestation, soil erosion and depletion, natural habitat destruction and higher carbon emissions, according to Pulde.

3. Farmed fish

Their feces contribute to water pollution, while the crowding of fish can breed bacteria and other diseases.

4. Coffee

Increased demand for coffee has resulted in production that contributes to deforestation, heavy water usage and runoff that pollutes waterways and destroys natural habitats, Pulde said.

5. Sugar

It is water-intensive, which erodes the soils and contaminates waterways, damaging sea life ecosystems, Pulde said.

Ultimately, the key to a climate-friendly diet lies in reducing waste and maintaining realistic and healthy goals, Gill and Pulde pointed out.

You can reach the author Michelle Shen @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.