Defining Sustainable Nutrition, According to a Dietitian

Can the way we eat really impact the climate crisis? Lauren MacLeod (@themountaindietitian), MUIR content editor and sports dietitian, explores how to eat well – for humans and for the planet.

Why is sustainable eating so important?


Global food production is responsible for up to
one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

Even if the world immediately stopped using fossil fuels, we wouldn’t be able to meet the climate change reversal goals established by the Paris Agreement, a global treaty on climate change. 

We cannot succeed without addressing food production practices.

What can you do, as just one person, about the state of our food systems? You can change the food you choose to buy, forcing companies to change supply. Making environmentally-conscious food choices is one of the most impactful ways for individuals to take control. 

Eating sustainably benefits the planet through reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less water waste, improved soil health, and more. 

Planet health equals human health too: an earth-conscious eating pattern may reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and certain cancers. 

Are you ready to improve your health, and the health of the planet? Here’s how. 

Choose low environmental impact foods


Ready to go vegan? No? That’s okay! 

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that just reducing meat intake can have a dramatic effect on your personal carbon footprint. 

What constitutes a “sustainable healthy diet”? According to the IPCC:

  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (beans)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Plant oils
  • Animal products “produced in resilient, sustainable, and low-GHG (greenhouse gas) emission systems.” 

These foods closely match the tenets of the Mediterranean Diet. “Diet” is used loosely here because it’s not actually a diet; it’s more like a lifestyle change. The foods listed above form the foundation for the Mediterranean Diet. Fish, seafood, dairy, and poultry are also consumed in moderation, while red meats and added sugars are enjoyed on occasion.

This eating pattern promotes increased fiber, unsaturated fats, and vitamins and minerals, while reducing saturated fats and added sugar. It has been proven to reduce the risk of strokes and heart disease, all while minimizing impact on the environment.

Where to start: plant-based meat alternatives

Start by reducing meat consumption. 

Beef in particular contributes to the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any food – 99 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents per kilogram of food product. High methane production from cows, clearing land to grow their food, and even allocating space for grazing leads to an astronomical carbon footprint.

Greenhouse gas emissions per food, infographic


While beef is the biggest culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, other meats and animal products still produce more greenhouse gas than their plant-based counterparts:

  • Beef: 99 kg CO2
  • Lamb and mutton: 39 kg CO2
  • Farmed prawns: 27 kg CO2
  • Cheese: 24 kg CO2
  • Pigs: 12 kg CO2
  • Poultry: 10 kg CO2
  • Eggs: 5 kg CO2

Plant-based protein sources produce fewer greenhouse gasses, all falling below three kilograms of CO2 produced per kilogram of food product. 

Sources of plant-based proteins include:

  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Soy products, such as soymilk, tofu, tempeh
  • Protein powders from soy, pea protein, etc

Water Footprint Calculator

Another way to measure environmental impact is the “water footprint,” or the amount of water needed to produce a food product.

In addition to its high carbon footprint, beef also has one of the largest water footprints of any food product. It takes 463 gallons of water to produce just one 4-ounce steak. That’s about as much water as the average Californian uses in five days.

However, one plant-based product beats out beef in this category. Almonds require a whopping 483 gallons of water per 4 ounce serving. By comparison, peanuts require 119 gallons per 4 ounce serving, making them a lower-impact nut choice. 

Water footprint calculator infographic


Other common foods and their water footprint:

  • Daily water use per person  in California: 91 gallons
  • Nuts and legumes, including cashews, pistachios, and walnuts (4 oz): 300-400 gallons
  • Lamb (4 oz): 313 gallons 
  • Quinoa (4 oz): 135 gallons
  • Chicken and turkey (4 oz): 130 gallons
  • Cheese (4 oz): 95 gallons
  • Tofu (4 oz): 76 gallons 
  • Rice (4 oz): 73 gallons
  • Dairy milk (8 oz): 64 gallons
  • Lentils (4 oz): 57 gallons
  • Eggs (4 oz): 49 gallons
  • Bread (4 oz): 48 gallons
  • Stone fruit, berries, citrus (4 oz): 20-25 gallons
  • Soymilk (8 oz): 19 gallons
  • Sweet potatoes, sweet, white, and yellow (4 oz): 9-12 gallons
  • Leafy greens (4 oz): 8 gallons

Sustainable food brands

To make lasting changes, we need to change how food is made – not just rely on personal responsibility.

At MUIR, we believe in taking radical responsibility for our impact on the world around us. Taking care of Mother Earth is part of that responsibility.

We are the first energy gel company to commit to carbon neutrality via our Carbon Neutral certification.

As a member of 1% For the Planet, we donate 1% of all sales to support environmental solutions.

By committing to long-term health for people and the planet, we’ve also committed to pursuing high-quality partnerships.

Our suppliers:

  • Prioritize employee and environmental health over profit
  • Produce high-quality products
  • Don’t cut corners, and correct mistakes when they err

With the combined power of changes in individual food choices, decreased food waste, increased efficiency of food production, and improvements in business practices, we can have a measurable impact on climate change.