Food
7 min read
Rob Cheesewright  (Pinwheel author)
Rob Cheesewright

Low Carbon Diet: How can you get started?

Our diet not only impacts our health and well-being but has a significant impact on the planet. Food production is responsible for a third of human-caused emissions, with the meat industry having the biggest negative impact. The more meat we eat, the more that is produced, and the more emissions we generate.

If we alter our eating habits by switching to a low carbon diet then we can significantly reduce our personal carbon emissions, feeding into the reductions that are needed on a global scale to restore the health of our planet.

Watch the video for quick summary or read on for more details.

Eat less meat and reduce dairy consumption

Meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of global CO2 emissions. This is because animals produce methane as they digest food, consume huge amounts of water, and require large areas of land to survive. Livestock is a climate double-whammy, as the land they need is often created through large-scale deforestation. As the forests are cleared, they release the carbon stored in the trees into the atmosphere. Its also worth pointing out that the way we treat livestock is appalling – its hard to justify the scale of harm we do, even without accounting for the climate impact.

Due to the way their digestive systems operate, the main culprits for these issues are sheep and cows. Beef is the worst climate offender by far, with annual global emissions from its production roughly equaling those of India. The biggest and quickest single thing most of us could do to cut our carbon emissions is to cut out beef from our diets.

To combat this issue, we do not need to suddenly become vegetarian or vegan (although you’d have the biggest impact if you did!), but we do need to make sure we’re reducing our meat and dairy consumption. This will dramatically reduce carbon emissions because we are reducing the demand, which in turn reduces the supply. There has been a rise in veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism already, with meat and dairy substitutes becoming more readily available, making the switch to a low carbon diet easier than ever.

Starting with one meal a week being meat-free can have a positive impact on the planet. There are plenty of meat-free recipes out there, or you can try a meat alternative like Quorn, Beyond Meat, or THIS to help you get started. This kind of action on a mass scale can have a significant impact. If every family in the UK ate one vegan meal a week, the UK's emissions would fall by 8%.

To make things really simple there are a great range of veg boxes and meat free meal kits you can try. We recommend Riverford’s organic vegetarian and vegan recipe boxes or Allplants meal boxes. Replacing milk has got easier. Try Minor Figures, Alpro or Oatly milk substitutes. Alpro and Oatly are available in most UK supermarkets.

The money you save from reducing the volume of meat and dairy products you consume can go towards investing in quality, which is better for your health and animal welfare. Buying free range or organic produce ensures that you’re buying top quality produce. Where you do buy meat, changing your shopping habits to purchasing meat from your local butcher or eggs from a local source not only helps to support local businesses and communities but makes you aware of where your food is coming from. That way, you are not supporting produce that has traveled miles, and as result released carbon emissions from delivery trucks and other factors in the supply chain. Instead, you are championing locally grown produce, by local farmers that can go from farm to table in a more environmentally friendly way.

Reduce food waste

When you do your weekly shop, you usually account for all the meals you’re going to have that week and shop accordingly. But no matter how much you plan, there is always going to be that last minute night out or the days where you just feel like treating yourself to a takeaway. These human aspects of life can result in food being wasted.

Food waste accounts for 6% of global CO2 emissions, which is around three times the amount from aviation. 9% of the food industry’s total emissions comes from people throwing food away. Not only is the energy it takes to produce food completely wasted when it is thrown away, but rotting food also produces methane, which rapidly contributes to global warming.

The biggest way we can make an impact and reduce these emissions is to find ways to reduce food waste. This starts with the basics like only buying the food you need - it might seem obvious but planning your meals can help make sure you’re only buying the food you need for the week. If you struggle to meal plan, why not try doing a couple of smaller food shops a week?

Another great way to reduce food waste is to use up the food you have before buying more. A seemingly random collection of ingredients could always be combined to make a new dish rather than throwing them away. There are loads of recipes out there that can help you make something magic out of your leftover foods.

Lastly, we need to eat with our stomachs and not our eyes. Discarding produce because it’s not visually appealing is an ongoing problem. So next time you're shopping, pick up the wonky fruits and vegetables that might not be the prettiest. Supermarkets have even started to mark up these ‘ugly fruits and veg’ at reduced prices to encourage consumers to purchase them - great for the environment and your wallet. Furthermore, when your fruit and vegetables are wilted or overripe, they can still be used - especially in soups and smoothies. It’s far more beneficial to the planet (and to you) for them to be turned into something nutritious and delicious, rather than wasting away in landfill.

Reduce packaging

Part of a low carbon diet is not just about low carbon food, we’ve got to consider what it comes in as well. Food packaging is almost always designed to be single-use and is highly resource-intensive to produce. Most packaging is made up of plastic which is reliant on a variety of polymers derived from petroleum. This is a massive drain on natural resources which is exactly what we want to avoid.

In addition to this, most plastics cannot be reused, meaning it ends up discarded in our oceans and rivers. This issue is now so severe that eight million pieces of plastic are entering our oceans a day. This can lead to animals dying when they choke on these plastics and also leads to toxic chemicals leaking into the ocean.

A good first step is to buy foods that are not heavily packaged. The best way to do this is by buying loose fruit and vegetables. There are even several supermarkets now offering reusable plastic-style bags to transport these in, or you could buy your own to take to the supermarket with you.

If you’re left with no other option, then always look for foods that use recyclable packaging. You can check what is able to be recycled in your area and plan accordingly. There has also been an increase in availability of refill tubs and pouches designed to replenish a main container for certain products - mainly with goods such as cereals, washing up liquid and soap. Choosing these products can help you to reduce your packaging consumption and do your part for the planet. There’s also the added benefit of reducing the number of fully packaged products that must be produced and therefore also much more cost effective.

One last way you can reduce packaging is by buying large economy-sized products. These last longer and therefore don’t need to be replaced as often. As a result, you can reduce packaging you consume as well as working out cheaper in the long run. Just make sure that you really will use it all!

Choose seasonal food

Shopping seasonally reduces the need to transport non-seasonal foods from long distances. They are often shipped from warmer countries where they can be grown all year round. This often means flying food in, which produces ten times more emissions than purely road transport and 50 times more than shipping.

Even when the food arrives in the country, it then has to travel to reach our supermarkets which in turn produces even more emissions. DEFRA estimates that food transport within the UK alone accounts for the same volume of emissions as 5.5 million cars. There is then even more mileage to add on top of that when we consider the distance we personally travel to buy food, which is on average several hundred miles per person a year.

The best way to combat this problem is to prioritise seasonal food that can be bought locally. The first step to eating seasonally is to research what foods are seasonal to where you live and then you can purchase these accordingly. Of course, there are always going to be some anomalies such as coffee and chocolate which are only grown in select parts of the world and don’t follow seasonal patterns. But there are still plenty of other seasonal food groups to focus your attention on.

So, there you have it - our step by step guide on how to achieve a low carbon diet. Small changes can make a huge difference to the environment. When you buy seasonal food, reduce packaging usage, meat consumption and food waste, you significantly reduce your impact on the planet. Better yet, shopping locally can also help you feel more connected to your local community by helping to support local businesses. You can also start making meaningful changes by signing up to a Pinwheel plan. Together, we can help our planet get on the road to recovery and leave it in the best condition for future generations.