Feature photo by Dave Sag

I have a love affair with food. I love to buy it, eat it, cook it, bake with it and of course, talk about it. I am vegan, and I love how being vegan has allowed me to become incredibly creative and diverse with food preparation. Additionally, my eco-friendly diet makes me feel healthy, vibrant and full of energy. Here is a list of steps you can take to make your diet more eco-friendly while at the same time, improving your health and overall well-being.

  1. Choose organic Studies show that organic produce is healthier than their conventional counterparts. Why buy organic? Modern agriculture can be environmentally destructive by causing soil erosion, polluting water with fertilizers and chemical pesticides and, potentially, by altering the gene pool of natural ecosystems. Organic foods are produced without synthetic growth hormones, genetically engineered organisms, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers or man-made chemical pesticides. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen List of produce for something small enough to keep in your wallet.
  2. Join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or shop at your local Farmer’s Market. By joining a CSA or shopping at a Farmer’s Market, you are supporting local farmers while ensuring the safety and health of your food at the same time. Most local farmers grow food organically and your food has retained its nutrients as it has not had to travel 500 plus miles to reach your kitchen.
  3. Eat in season – By eating in season, you are greatly reducing your carbon footprint and the ill effects on the planet by shipping out of season produce. Eating fruits and vegetables at the time of harvest means you’re eating them when they’re fresh, have traveled less and have been stored less. That means a tastier food that has typically required fewer resources to reach you. You can also choose to eat out at green certified restaurants that feature in-season foods all-year around. Let them do the hard work of identifying exactly what those are while you sit back and enjoy your meal.
  4. Eat less meat – Eating lower on the food chain is probably the single most important thing you can do to help the environment. If the whole world stopped driving cars and SUVs, shipping goods in tractor trailers, flying planes, sending freighters across the ocean and all other transportation activity, it wouldn’t do as much as if we all just stopped eating beef. Livestock accounts for “18% of [the world’s] greenhouse gas emissions,” according to a 2006 study conducted by the United Nations. That includes clearing land for grazing, raising grains for feed and the enormous amount of methane emitted when cows burp. All the fertilizer and pesticides used to grow grain, the antibiotics and hormones (often) used to speed up livestock growth on feed lots and the copious manure all add to the environmental impact of raising livestock. Americans eat the equivalent of three quarter-pounders a day. If we each cut the equivalent of one hamburger from our daily diet, it would be like taking half million cars off the road. We might all live a little longer, too. When you do eat meat, look for ethically raised animals, raised locally on natural diets whenever possible.
  5. Eat real foods – If your grandmother wouldn’t have immediately recognized it as “food” there’s a good chance it’s less food and more manufactured good. Who wants to eat a manufactured good? Have you ever wondered how processed foods could have such a long shelf life? Real foods are the basis for a commonsense diet. The only processing food needs is the cooking you do at home. The less processing a food has been subjected to, less energy and fewer resources have been expended manufacturing, packaging and transporting it to your grocery store. And real foods haven’t had all the nutrition processed out of them. So read labels, and look for those foods with the shortest, most direct list of ingredients. Better, choose foods without labels because the items in the produce aisle are as real as it gets. This is a good way to eliminate artificial colors from your diet as well, which have been proven to cause adverse effects on your body.
  6. Start your own garden – Besides the benefits of gardening that go beyond food – time outdoors, quiet opportunities for contemplation, the satisfaction of having made something with your hands — growing your own food means complete control over the quality of your diet. A small space is enough for a surprisingly productive garden (and don’t forget to look for community gardens you can join). Even a sunny set of front stairs or a window box is enough to grow tomatoes, herbs and some other yummy produce.
  7. Compost – Composting makes simple common sense. Why send nutrients to the landfill or incinerator, when you can transform them into compost that will nourish your vegetable or flower garden, or your indoor potted plants? You’ll save on fertilizer costs for the yard or garden, and you make good use of all the food you buy — even those parts you don’t eat. Composting can be as easy as setting aside some space in a yard that can be kept free of animals and piling up vegetable and fruit waste (along with things like coffee grinds, egg shells and certain other foods and compostable packaging), as well as grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste. To speed up the decomposition process, manage the ratio of wastes, and turn the compost pile. Check out HowToCompost.org to learn more. And don’t think composting is just for people living with an acre of land. Kitchen compost bins and worm bins are available for urban composting, too. If you’re lucky, your city or community garden may even accept kitchen wastes for composting.
  8. Buy in bulk – Two reasons: Less packaging and less cost. Packaging materials and containers make up 13 million of the 30 million tons of plastic waste in our country according to 2009 numbers tabulated by the EPA. Buying in bulk eliminates packaging waste. Beyond bulk, look for minimally packaged items and items that are packaged in 100% post-consumer recycled materials or can be composted. Eliminate disposable-bag waste by buying a couple good reusable bags — preferably made from recycled materials — and remember to carry them with you to the market so you don’t have to struggle with the old “paper or plastic” question.
  9. A few more simple steps – Eating green is really about limiting waste in one form or another, so why stop with the food? Here are a few easy ways to waste less and save money: If you drink bottled water or carbonated beverages, look to your tap, a good filter and/or a home carbonation system, paired with a good reusable bottle. Get cloth napkins and dishtowels and stop buying paper napkins and paper towels. If you can’t go without paper altogether, look for 100% post consumer recycled paper. Make your green switch complete by choosing napkins and hand towels made from recycled materials or a sustainable fiber like bamboo, jute or organic cotton. Replace plastic storage containers with glass. Some kinds of plastics can leach ingredients that have been shown to mimic hormones and which have been linked to several health concerns. Glass, if you can avoid dropping it, will last a lifetime. Think carefully about what your container is made out of when you use the microwave since heating can also cause suspect chemicals to leach into food.
  10. Green clean – If you’ve gone through all the trouble of keeping any harmful pesticide residue from touching your vegetables, why would you want to use a pesticide (like an antimicrobial soap) or harsh chemical (like bleach) on your countertops, cooking surfaces and dishes? Commercial cleaners made from less harsh and nontoxic ingredients have proliferated in recent years, making this an easy switch. But in most cases, you can save money by easily making your own effective cleansers with simple ingredients like baking soda, borax, lemon juice and vinegar.

In summary, the best options to make your diet more eco-friendly are to eat less processed food, eat less meat and cook at home. You will be amazed at how much better you feel once you eat less processed foods and more whole foods. Happy Eating!

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