I often say that the American Diet is the SUV (or hummer) of eating styles: excessive, wasteful, and unhealthy – both for you, and for the environment, and that what makes for leaner, healthier eating also tends to be a much more eco-friendly approach (think hybrid cars).
But while most of the path towards "lean and green cuisine" is easy, (i.e., pack your diet with plant foods) there are a handful of healthy foods out there that are Hummers when it comes to energy use, which might surprise even the most die-hard health nuts or eco-warriors. I've listed a few of the biggest offenders below, while also suggesting some "Cooler Swaps" for greener health foods - you'll still reap the health benefits, but cruise towards a leaner you with an impact closer to that of a hybrid, than a gas-guzzling Hummer. How fantastic is that?
1. Fresh Flown Fish/Sushi. If you're savoring sushi tonight, chances are your dinner logged more frequent-flier miles than you have lately. While fish scores high marks for health, fresh flown sushi is one of the most energy intense foods to bring to your plate- - how else could it arrive from a boat halfway around the world in record time? Consider that air travel is eleven times more energy intense than traveling by truck, and that large carnivorous fish, which are the darling of sushi (think tuna), are some of the most energy-intense fish to catch because of how far out at sea they live.
Make A Cooler Swap With: Wild Alaskan salmon fillets, frozen at sea.
2. Acai juice and other exotic super juices. Touting super antioxidant levels, and claims about curing cancer, boosting sex drive, or turning back the clock abound. These sound like some of the healthiest drinks, and worth the heftier price, right? Wrong. Most of these claims are flimsy at best, flat out lying at worst. Exotic Superfruit juices don't give you any more help in soothing that American stress, and come with a higher carbon footprint, coming from far flung locales, often places rich in vanishing rainforest (those vital carbon sinks we all depend on).
Make A Cooler Swap With: American beauties, such as concord grape juice and 100% cranberry juice. There is real science about the health benefits these juices can bring to your arteries and urinary tract, respectively*. They are also cheaper and closer to home, which limits fossil-fuel intense "drink miles" (liquids are one of the heaviest items to ship).
*Another way to be healthy and green in the juice department? Choose 100% frozen juice concentrate as the Gold Standard for nutrition, cost, and significant carbon savings (you're not shipping all that water around). Be sure that the juice you choose is from the USA, and not Brazil or any other country where rainforest is being cleared for cheap, American food and beverage products.
3. Multigrain breakfast cereals. Breakfast cereals can certainly be healthy; they have been shown to promote better body weights, and are chock full of fiber. But they are also one of the more carbon heavy items in your cart due to all of their processing and packaging (they often come double wrapped in both cardboard and plastic).
Make A Cooler Swap With: Oatmeal. Buy in bulk for a greener superfood choice that costs pennies a bowl, packs in the fiber, mops up cholesterol, offers good blood-sugar control, and fullness all morning long. How can you beat that? Tired of oatmeal? Try hot quinoa, milllet or brown rice for a tasty change that's still eco-friendly.
4. Salad. That's right. While super healthy, here's the spoiler alert: a recent British study found that salad was the #1 food tossed at home before it was eaten. Why? Because it had spoiled! That's a double-whammy environment impact: 1) food that heads to landfills emits methane, which is 23 times as warming as carbon dioxide, and 2) The energy to transport salad outstrips the energy in the food itself; it takes about 60 fossil fuel calories to bring ONE salad calorie from California to dinner plates in New York!
Make A Cooler Swap With: Celeriac or fennel salads or root vegetables. These guys have much longer shelf lives, are in season during the colder months, and pack plenty of eco-friendly vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Want to know what's in season near you? Check out this site and click on your state.
5. 100 Calorie Snack Packs. Talk about a dietary hot zone! Another mantra to remember: convenience creates carbon. All of that added packaging uses lots more petroleum resources (packaging is petroleum based), creating a bigger carbon footprint - all for that two minute eating experience. That two minute snack of highly processed food is also likely to leave you feeling less satisfied than one of my Cooler Swaps below.
Make A Cooler Swap With: Bulk walnuts or pepitas, or frozen edamame. I am a big fan of one-ingredient snack foods. That way, you are guaranteed to get all the nutrition Mother Nature's perfect package had to offer, with minimal processing, refining, or otherwise added carbon load; the perfect example of trading health for nutrition. Buying in bulk for your snacks not only pares down the packaging (greener choice), but it's cheaper too - another fabulous win-win!
So the next time you are navigating the grocery store keep these swaps in mind; you'll still help your waistline, but in a more eco-friendly package. And here's a cool tool: If you want to see the carbon cost of your last meal, check out this site.
What are some other healthy foods that are Hummers when it comes to energy use? I'd love to hear from you