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Which Foods Are Considered Low-Carbon Proteins?

Which Foods Are Considered Low-Carbon Proteins?

Those interested in living more sustainably should reexamine their diet. As meat production produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, searching for low-carb proteins is essential to lowering your carbon footprint. But what can steak lovers supplement yet still feel satisfied after a meal?

There has never been a better time to consider environmentally friendly foods to contribute to a healthier planet. Here is why swapping out high-emissions proteins for greener options is a good idea, plus some helpful tips and low-carbon proteins for adopting a sustainable diet.

Why Eat Low-Carbon Proteins?

Livestock production emits 3.75 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually — a major contributor to climate change. Beyond air pollution, livestock farming spreads disease and depletes natural ecosystems and essential resources. Beef cattle production, in particular, is among the worst practices, releasing ample amounts of harmful methane.

Studies show a dietary shift to plant-based foods is best for creating a healthier planet while continuing to feed your body adequate protein. However, just because food derives from plants doesn't mean it's a sustainable option.

For instance, avocados are high in protein and can satiate you for hours without your blood sugar dropping. Yet, production is controversial, requiring excessive amounts of water. Avocado farms also cause widespread deforestation in vulnerable regions like the Amazon rainforest and drought-ridden California. 

6 Low-Carbon Proteins for a Sustainable Diet

Swapping out unsustainable foods for low-carbon proteins is much easier when you know what to eat. Many people avoid following plant-based diets because they believe they're too restrictive or won't make a difference individually. Here are six low-carbon proteins for a more sustainable diet — some of which carnivores might enjoy.

1.   Legumes

You can reduce your food-based carbon footprint by 49% when you become a vegetarian or vegan. One way to make it happen? Eat more beans. Legumes have the lowest environmental impact among all other protein sources, using far less water and emitting significantly fewer emissions.

Legumes can withstand periods of drought. If a region must tighten water consumption, legumes will survive — an advantage for low-income countries and areas with prolonged droughts needing a sustainable food source. They also benefit soil fertility by increasing nutrient availability during crop rotations.

2.   Eggs

Eggs are among the most versatile foods and a better option for the planet than other types of proteins. In fact, chicken feed and manure management renders the highest environmental impact, regardless of how farmers rear the poultry. Yet, researchers find organic feed could reduce greenhouse gases during egg production.

Unlike vegans, many vegetarians eat eggs because their resistance to meat consumption is based on eating the animal itself. To them, eggs are not developed enough to be considered animals.

3.   Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are an excellent alternative to meat protein in a sustainable diet. You can reduce environmental impacts by 23% when you eat sustainable nuts like walnuts and sunflower seeds. Just 42 grams (g) of nuts is 10% of the recommended daily protein intake.

Other nuts aren't as sustainable. For example, California is home to most almond farms in the U.S. — transporting these nuts nationwide increases carbon emissions. Likewise, you need 12 liters of water to grow one almond, meaning 23 almonds require 276 liters. Unfortunately, California doesn't have adequate water reserves for almond farming due to its drier climate. 

4.   Soy Products

Soy products are a staple in plant-based diets and a critical low-carbon protein source. Three-quarters of a cup of tofu has 10 g of protein and delivers healthy omega-3 fatty acids for cholesterol control. It is also highly versatile, coming in different densities and prepared in various ways.

Soy farming isn't perfect, causing widespread deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. This is because the soy market is 13 times higher today than in the 1960s. However, its environmental impact is still far less than that of animal proteins.

5.   Chicken

When it comes to livestock, chicken may be your best low-carbon option. Sustainable poultry production relies on how farmers raise and feed the chickens, as chickens produce less methane during digestion. They also use less space and roam on the floor — typically covered in shavings to absorb their manure.

Although chickens have less environmental impact than beef cattle production, they still contribute to climate change. For instance, feed production accounts for 70% of emissions, while electricity use and fossil fuel combustion contribute 10.2% and 8.1%, respectively. Of course, farmers can make production more sustainable by utilizing renewable energy alternatives.

6.   Seafood

Seafood products are also low-carbon options for a sustainable diet. Wild fisheries, in particular, produce lower carbon outputs than beef, cheese, pork and chicken because they require no land or fresh water. According to one study, small pelagic fish — sardines and anchovies — emit the lowest levels of greenhouse gases.

Most wild fisheries' environmental impact derives from wild capture. Boat trawlers drag along the seafloor, disturbing fragile marine ecosystems. They also produce three times higher emissions than boats using nets. The distance vessels must travel to catch wild fish also contributes to greenhouse gases.

Tips to Adopt a Climate-Friendly Diet

Transitioning to plant-based foods is good for your health and the environment. However, simply eating more low-carbon proteins also has a positive impact. The following tips will help you succeed in adopting a climate-friendly diet:

  • Start slowly by eliminating one or two high-emissions proteins from your weekly meals.
  • Plan your meals.
  • Always keep essential ingredients handy, including eggs, walnuts, beans and poultry.
  • Cook at home more often, trying low-carbon recipes with enthusiasm.
  • Opt for more natural products — instead of processed peanut butter, look for organic peanut butter produced with only nuts and seeds.
  • Research low-carbon proteins you can eat as opposed to those you shouldn't — this will make the dietary changes feel less restrictive.
  • Adopt a positive attitude about trying new foods.

It may take time before low-carbon proteins become second nature to your diet. Embrace learning about environmentally friendly alternatives and make changes accordingly.

Let Sustainability Inspire Your Diet

Eating more low-carbon proteins doesn't mean you have to give up your carnivorous diet. You can still enjoy poultry and seafood while creating a more sustainable planet — moderation is key. Keep an open mind and embrace climate-friendly foods to satisfy your hunger.

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