Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is getting easier, as more people demand fuel efficient cars, improved recycling and energy-saving appliances. However, one place that could have the greatest impact on preserving the environment is the answer to the infamous question, “What’s for dinner?” Research shows that aiming to eat consciously by adding more variety, focusing on fresh produce and choosing sustainably produced food significantly affects the environment, not to mention individual health.

Reduce Meat, Eat Plants

The popular phrase “you are what you eat” has made its way around the dinner table time and again, and means more than Mom trying to get her kids to eat healthier. What goes into the body affects the blood, tissues, thoughts, and mood. Whole foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and quality proteins form healthier bodies, opposed to processed and refined foods, chemicals, additives and sugars. Eating more “real” or whole, unprocessed food not only has a direct effect on health, but also a profound impact on the health and future of the planet. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, ascertains that it is “no longer possible to separate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat, or the environment in which we eat.” Pollan, along with Nina Planck, Mark Bittman and other food journalists are leading the campaign on “conscious eating.” For example, in January, Bittman broadcasted on the radio program, The Brian Lehrer Show, that our food choices can hurt or harm the environment, especially the consumption of meat. Bittman emphasized that Americans consume about ten billion industrialized animals per year. According to the UN, this makes up about 18% of the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Thus, cutting back on personal meat consumption, as well as buying more responsibly produced meat such as grass-fed beef or pasture-raised or organic chickens and eggs contribute to eco-friendly eating. Such is the goal of the “Meatless Mondays” campaign, a non-profit initiative in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. This campaign stresses that if all Americans switched from eating chickens and pigs to eating beans and grains for just one day per week, that would stop as much global warming as if everyone in the U.S. shifted to ultra-efficient Toyota hybrids (which is the weekly equivalent of using 12 billion fewer gallons of gasoline). Not only does a reduction in meat consumption aid the environment, but scores of studies, including The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, have demonstrated that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases, and affects the overall health of any individual. Thus, as Pollan explains in his book, In Defense of Food, a vegetarian or “flexitarian” diet (one that consists of mostly plant based foods with occasional meat consumption) results in fewer health complications and increased longevity.

Go “Green” with Organic

Choosing organic produce instead of conventional produce clears the environment of tons of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that are polluting the soil and waterways; further compromising the integrity of our food, and adding stress to our bodies. Current estimates show over 400 pesticides are legally used in the U.S. on conventional produce, and repeated exposure to pesticides has been linked to hyperactivity, behavior disorders, learning disabilities, developmental delays and motor dysfunction in children. A useful guide to determine which fruits and vegetables contain the highest to lowest levels of pesticides is the “Dirty Dozen,” which is available at foodnews.org. Buy Local Local eating is another eco-conscious movement quickly gaining popularity. Buying food from local farms, joining a Community Supported Agriculture group (CSA) or co-op, or growing a garden dramatically reduces food miles and pollution, as well as provides fresher, tastier and more nutritious food. Some experts say that eating locally is actually more important than choosing to eat all organic because organic produce can still travel thousands of miles. SlowFoodusa.org is an excellent resource to find out more about the nationwide effort to eat local and support fair trade.

Eat Those Greens

A final way to eat more “green” is to literally eat more greens. Leafy greens are the primary missing food from the Standard American Diet. Greens such as kale, collards, turnip greens, escarole and broccoli rabe are nutrient powerhouses, loaded with calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, zinc and vitamins A, C, E and K. They are also crammed with fiber, folic acid, chlorophyll and many other micronutrients and phyto-chemicals. Additionally, a cup of greens per day actually help to “green” the body by creating an internal rainforest that helps remove toxins and heavy metals. Greens are best eaten seasonally, with an emphasis on salad greens like spinach and dandelion in the spring and summer, and coarser greens like kale and collards in the fall and winter Becoming a more “eco-conscious” eater takes minimal effort for the maximum return of improved bodily and environmental health. Additionally, reducing meat intake, eating more locally, and planting a garden often shaves dollars off the grocery bill. Plant-based proteins like beans, tofu, tempeh and vegetables generally cost less than meat. Organic and local produce may be more expensive than conventional produce, but yield more nutritional value per dollar. Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Bring consciousness to the table, and savor the difference.

Want to know more?

Check out these books:

Bittman, Mark. “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.”

Pollan, Michael. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”

Planck, Nina. “Real Food”