Swapping beef for chicken in your burrito can have big benefits for the environment, study shows

There’s a lot of talk about reducing our carbon footprint to protect the earth for future generations. From avoiding gas leaf blowers to turning off your lights when you leave a room, there are many meaningful ways to support the planet’s health—both big and small. And though the most effective solutions for climate change will ultimately come down to large-scale shifts in government policies and how big corporations operate, the actions we take daily can move us into a future that feels more aligned with our views.

New research finds that when it comes to what you eat, even some simple diet tweaks can mean big reductions in your carbon footprint, too.

What is a carbon footprint?

A “carbon footprint” refers to the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are emitted into the environment. While carbon dioxide (CO2) is the greenhouse gas that is most prevalent, other gasses like methane and nitrous oxide can contribute to a carbon footprint too.

Generally speaking, the higher the carbon footprint, the greater the detrimental effect on our environment. When it comes to carbon dioxide, for example, having too much of this gas in the environment is concerning because it has heat-trapping properties, leading to a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. When CO2 is released into the atmosphere, it acts like a blanket, preventing the sun’s heat from escaping back into space. This trapped heat contributes to global warming, causing a rise in average global temperatures. This temperature increase can lead to certain environmental changes, including melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and alterations in wildlife habitats and migration patterns. Additionally, higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere can lead to ocean acidification, which poses serious threats to marine life.

Because of this, many initiatives, both personal and corporate, are focused on reducing carbon footprints to mitigate the effects of global warming.

Your diet may impact your carbon footprint

The foods you choose to eat may have a profound impact on the environment—particularly because certain items emit more greenhouse gasses than others when they are grown, processed, harvested, distributed and transported. But giving your diet a complete overhaul can be challenging.

If you are keen on taking steps to keep Mother Earth healthy but don’t want to give up your favorite foods, new findings from researchers from Stanford, Harvard and Tulane will help you navigate this conundrum, as they conducted an analysis of simple food swaps that can provide a positive impact on the environment. The research was published in the journal “Nature Food” in October.

Using dietary intake data from a sample of 7,753 US children and adults, the researchers suggested that if everyone who ate what they consider high-carbon foods instead consumed a lower-carbon substitute, the total dietary carbon footprint in the United States would be reduced by more than 35%. Plus, if adopted, these substitutions would improve consumers’ overall dietary quality by 4% to 10%. Sounds like a win-win.

Swaps to reduce your dietary carbon footprint

The researchers found some “high-emission” swaps that may result in both positive environmental and health effects. Some tips they identified include:

  • Switching out beef or pork for chicken or a vegetarian item in dishes

  • Choosing a plant-based milk alternative, like oat, almond or soy milk instead of dairy milk

  • Replacing juice with whole fruit

  • Swapping a beef burger with a turkey burger

  • Opting for salmon instead of crab

  • Eating pork instead of lamb

The largest reductions in carbon emissions appear to be seen when mixed dishes, like burritos and pasta, use lower carbon-impact proteins instead of higher choices.

One key aspect of these findings is that if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you don’t have to give your entire diet an overhaul. “Simple, achievable substitutions—small changes—can still produce a meaningful impact,” per Anna Grummon, PhD, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of pediatrics and health policy at Stanford University.

Should you make “low-emission” swaps?

It is important to keep in mind that, while making these swaps may result in a lower production of greenhouse emissions, there are other factors to consider when you decide if making these swaps are right for you.

Take the suggestion to replace dairy milk with almond milk, as an example. While it appears to be true that dairy milk produces more carbon emissions than plant-based choices, almond milk production requires more water, giving it a higher water footprint. Additionally, the retail price of plant-based milks, like almond milk, is generally higher than cow’s milk, making it less accessible to lower-income groups. Finally, while almond milk is fortified with nutrients, a recent analysis suggested that plant-based milks do not compare to traditional dairy on a nutritional level.

When it comes to nutritional considerations, beef is one of the best sources of heme iron (the form of iron that the body can absorb and utilize more easily than plant-based sources). Since recent data shows that 40% of teenage girls have iron deficiency, a condition that is linked to poor school performance, sluggishness and brain fog, it’s important that, if you are going to swap beef for another food, you make sure you aren’t missing important nutrients like iron as a result by choosing other iron-containing foods.

When deciding which swaps to adopt, accessibility, nutritional implications and taste should all be considered. And remember—even small changes may have impressively big impacts.