Sustainable diets refer to eco-friendly food that promotes good health and has a low environmental footprint. So, what are the most sustainable foods we should start consuming?
Sustainable eating means a plant-based diet that includes fruits and veggies, kidney beans, and mushrooms. Most environmentally friendly foods are foods produced with minimal water or contribute to deforestation and climate change.
This article explores nine types of sustainable foods and their nutrient profile. You will read about the agricultural practices that make them sustainable. It also discusses the environmental impacts of unsustainable foods like meat and fish.
Legumes is an umbrella term for pulses, beans, and lentils. Legumes are from Fabaceae, a family containing over 16,000 plant species. Beans are a type of legume, but not all legumes are beans. Legumes are kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, and pinto beans.
Pulses refer to edible dried seeds of legume plants. These terms seem confusing because they have similar meanings, and we use them interchangeably. Other examples of pulses are broad beans (also known as fava beans), adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, cowpeas, pigeon peas, lupins, and vetches.
Pulses are rich in vitamins, iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium. Beans are the best source of plant-based protein for people new to eating sustainably. They contain 20 amino acids and a low-calorie quantity. Beans are also rich in antioxidants, known as polyphenols. Polyphenols fight the free radicals the body produces during metabolism.
Pulses also improve the serum lipid profiles and several other cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, platelet activity, and inflammation. The high fiber content in pulses makes them great for diabetic people by maintaining healthy blood glucose and insulin levels2.
They are one of the most sustainable foods in the food industry because they require minimal resources for cultivation. They minimize greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and reduce meat consumption. Pulses are so versatile that they can grow in soils with poor health. They also have a long shelf period, preventing food waste.
One of the most sustainable foods we consume is leafy greens. Leafy greens are vegetables we consume often because it is one of the best environmentally friendly foods with lots of nutrients. There are different types of leafy vegetables.
They are lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, and Bok Choy. Other leafy vegetables include broccoli, watercress, arugula, radicchio, and microgreens. Leafy greens are rich in Vitamins A, C, E, and K. Vegetables like broccoli, bok choy, and mustard contain B vitamins and potassium. Leafy vegetables are rich in carotenoids and antioxidants that protect the cells and block cancer cells in their early stages. They also have high quantities of fiber, iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Leafy vegetables are the most sought-after food in the food system because they have low quantities of carbohydrates, sodium, and cholesterol. Consuming these vegetables protects human health from heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The high levels of B vitamins improve your heart health and prevent certain congenital disabilities.
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when bone mineral density and mass are reduced. It also refers to the change in the structure and strength of the bone. Vitamin K helps protect the bones in the body from osteoporosis and prevents the occurrence of inflammatory diseases.
The fresh produce helps reduce bloating and relieve stress. Consuming any of the leafy vegetables supports your gut health and immune system. These are sustainable foods to include in your diet to ensure you're eating sustainably. Green vegetables are a staple in vegan diets.
Root vegetables are vegetable plants that grow underground, beneath the soil's surface—the bulbous growth stores nutrients for the parts of the plants that are above ground. There are three categories of root vegetables: taproots, tubers, and bulbs.
Taproot vegetables are beetroots, carrots, and parsnips, while tubers are potatoes, yams, and cassava. Bulbous vegetables are garlic, fennels, and onions. They are plant-based foods with the most carbohydrates after cereals. They are also low in calories but contain high quantities of antioxidants. Other types of root vegetables are ginger, radish, celery, and turmeric.
Each type of root vegetable has a wide variety of minerals and vitamins. For instance, the flesh of a medium baked potato contains 1,096 micrograms of vitamin A. It also contains 103 calories, while a cup of mashed turnips contains 51 calories and 76 milligrams of calcium. Carrots contain adequate quantities of vitamin A. A cup of chopped raw carrots contains 1,069 micrograms of vitamin A.
Onions are a valuable food source. They have high fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidant content. Research shows that eating 10 grams of raw onions reduces blood sugar levels in diabetic people. Beetroots are one of the most nutritious foods in the environment.
With each serving of beet greens, you get high amounts of nitrates, folate, fiber, and manganese. Roasting, juicing, pickling, and steaming beetroots may increase blood flow to your brain. It can also improve heart health and lower the risk of high blood pressure.
You can add root vegetables to your sustainable foods list because they release minimal greenhouse gas emissions during production. Transporting agricultural produce releases lots of carbon dioxide. However, tuber and root vegetables reduce their carbon footprint by enduring long-term storage conditions. You can store root vegetables for long periods without losing nutrients.
Related read: Fruits that are vegetables and vice versa.
Fruits are one of the most sustainable foods. You can include them in plant-based diets or meat-based meals. Although fruits have high nutritional value, some have a negative environmental impact. Some fruits like avocado, pineapples, peaches, bananas, and strawberries need enormous amounts of water to grow. They also have a high carbon footprint and use chemical pesticides that harm soil health.
You can eat sustainably by purchasing fruits grown in your local community. These fresh fruits didn't go through the rigors of transportation, thus reducing their environmental footprint. Also, buying fruits grown locally helps us eat seasonally. Some fruits only grow during the summer or fall season. We refer to these fruits as seasonal fruits.
Another reason to include locally grown fruits in your sustainable food list is the high quality of nutrients they provide. Local fruits have more nutrients because the transit period between harvest and your table or freezer is minimal. Their nutrient value is still intact and barely reduced. Seasonal produce imported from another country loses some nutrients, if not all, because of the long time it spends on trucks and distribution centers.
Also, consuming organic fruits grown in local communities supports the economy. Local farmers reinvest the money into the community to grow more fruits. You can converse with local farmers and learn about their sustainable agriculture practices. Overall, consuming fruits grown in local communities is safe and healthy.
Edible mushrooms are one of the most sustainable foods in the food chain. Some examples of edible mushrooms are oyster, button, crimini, shiitake, maitake, and morel mushrooms. They are rich in proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds.
Mushrooms are sustainable foods because they help us recycle waste. For instance, oyster mushrooms can grow on waste products like recyclable paper, coffee waste, cotton seed hulls, cocoa hulls, and banana leaves.
Shiitake mushrooms grow on wood, wood products, and wood waste. We advise you to add mushrooms to your diet if you want to eat sustainably because they have a higher yield return than other vegetables. For instance, you can harvest oyster mushrooms within a month of cultivation.
Also, cultivating mushrooms is not overly expensive. You can build a mushroom-growing house with cost-effective materials on a small parcel of land. Mushroom beds are stacked vertically in growing facilities to harvest more mushrooms. Farmers can get 7.1 pounds of mushrooms per square foot. Also, mushrooms use minimal water and energy for growth.
In the sustainable food system, mushrooms are a great source4 of plant-based protein. They also contain B vitamins, C, copper, potassium, niacin, calcium, and zinc. These nutrients improve heart health. Potassium regulates blood pressure, reducing the risk of high blood pressure.
Cereals are plants in the grass family grown for their grain, while grains are the edible seeds of cereals. The most consumed grains are rice, wheat, barley, maize, oats, sorghum, and rye. Cereal grains contain nutrients and bioactive compounds like dietary fiber, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, β-glucan, lignans, phytosterol, phenolics, etc.
Research shows that cereal grains with rich fiber protect the body from cardiovascular diseases. We consume grains in different forms. For instance, we eat wheat as wheat flour, semolina, whole wheat, and wheat noodles. You also eat cooked rice grains, starch, bread, dumplings, and rice noodles.
Cereal grains are one of the most sustainable foods because of their impact on health. Research dedicated to preventing and managing diabetes showed using cereal grain products works5. It showed that wheat bread with in-vivo α-amylase and α-glucosidase inhibitory activities slows down the rates of metabolism of blood glucose levels in experimental animals.
Maize has an anti-inflammatory compound known as ferulic acid. It is responsible for the production of macrophages, which play a crucial role in the secretion of mediators such as pro-inflammatory and inflammatory cytokines. The production of these compounds helps the body fight against chronic diseases like cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
Figs are soft fruits with thin skin. The skin can be purple or green, but the flesh is red. Figs are one of the most sustainable foods because you can eat every part of the fruit, including the bark. They also contain essential nutrients needed by the human body.
These nutrients are fat, carbohydrates, calories, riboflavin, potassium, vitamin B6, Vitamin K, magnesium, and thiamine. The nutrient content in fresh figs is different from that of dry figs. For instance, dry figs are rich in calories and sugar. Eating figs improves digestive health.
They have fiber, which helps soften or add bulk to stools, reducing constipation. Research shows figs reduce pain and bloating in the digestive system.
Figs fit right into the sustainable food system because they have a low environmental impact on land and water. It is mainly because of the minimal use of fertilizers and pesticides. Figs also have a minimal carbon footprint. Fig trees contribute to the environment by providing habitats and food for various animals. They also help stabilize the soil and control emotions.
Mussels, known as clams, are freshwater organisms with two hard external shells. The edible part of mussels contains 80% water, 9-13% protein, 0-2% fat, and 1-7% glycogen. Some people eat them raw, while others like them lightly cooked.
Mussels have a positive environmental impact that makes them sustainable. Their ecological role in the environment earned them the name of ecosystem engineers. They modify an aquatic habitat to make it more suitable for them6. They also provide nutrients for marine plants, invertebrates, and fish.
They consume organic matter from water columns and process it to build their body and strength before excreting. Their excretion is food for invertebrates, fish, and other marine organisms. Furthermore, the mussel's shell is a substrate for algae and insect larvae to attach to.
Related read: 13 Most Sustainable Fish & Responsible Seafood Choices.
Seaweed contains vitamins, minerals, fiber, and essential fatty acids, contributing to its tasty flavor. Seaweed is a staple in Japanese cuisine. They use a seaweed known as nori to wrap a mixture of sticky rice, raw fish, and other ingredients. We popularly know this as sushi.
Seaweed has a lot of health benefits, and it can improve your journey to sustainable eating. A lot of seaweeds contain anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Even the ancient Romans used them to treat wounds, burns, and rashes. Seaweeds also contain compounds that help fight against cancer.
Seaweeds are excellent sustainable options because they don't harm the environment. Cultivating seaweed offers a lot of environmental benefits because it requires fewer resources3. There's no need to farm with fertilizers, feed, and herbicides. It grows using the nutrients in seawater. It also improves the health of the marine environment.
The ocean absorbs about 30% of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The absorption of these greenhouse gases changes the ocean's pH levels and increases its acidity. It negatively affects marine life. However, farming seaweed as sustainable food prevents these dangers. Seaweed captures carbon and nitrogen in ocean waters, reducing the levels of ocean acidification.
Meat consumption has been on the rise since the 1960s. As the population increases, the demand for meat also rises. The meat demand is understandable because it is rich in nutrients that benefit our health. However, the increased demand for meat is harmful to the environment. Livestock farming for meat production has the following effects on the environment;
Livestock production is one of the significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. It contributes two types of gasses: methane and nitrous oxide. Methane gas is from enteric fermentation and manure storage, while nitrous oxide is from manure storage and fertilizer usage.
Also, producing animal feed for livestock animals contributes to the greenhouse gases in the air. These gases accelerate the occurrence of global warming, thus leading to climate change. As we all know, climate change is quite detrimental to the environment and its organisms.
To learn more about the toxic effects of meat consumption on the environment, look at our article on the environmental impact of meat production.
Meat production uses a lot of water. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), animal farming uses about 11,900 km³ of water annually. Livestock farms use a lot of water to produce animal feed, take care of the animals, slaughter them, and prepare them for sale.
The high water consumption by livestock farming can lead to water scarcity in some regions. Besides the high water consumption rates, meat production also causes water pollution. Water sources near animal farms get contaminated with protozoa and bacteria in animal wastes, leading to water-borne diseases in humans that use the water.
Although red meat is a nutritious food, it is dangerous to our health. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated that red meats had probable carcinogenic properties in 20151. It means consuming meat, specifically improperly processed meat, can cause cancer.
Research shows that humans should reduce their intake of red meat to 50 g per day to reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer. Another way meat production harms humans is by consuming water contaminated by animal waste. It causes water-borne diseases and can lead to water scarcity.
Read more: Environmental Impact of Meat Production.
After meat, fish is our primary source of proteins. However, is fish sustainable food? Sustainable seafood refers to seafood caught in the wild or farmed without causing a decline in marine life species. Fishes are abundant in the ocean, but the growing demand reduces their population.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates we overfish 85% of marine fish stocks. We move fish from their habitats before they can reproduce, reducing their population in the ecosystem. Other factors also make it difficult for fish to survive overfishing.
Things like rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, plastic, and chemical pollution affect fish populations, making it difficult for them to survive overfishing. Overfishing disrupts the marine food web, as fish are a source of nutrients for other marine animals.
These animals would enter a state of decline because they don't feed properly. Also, the method used to fish can cause environmental damage. For instance, bottom trawling is a fishing technique that involves dragging a big net across the seabed. This method catches everything in its path.
It puts endangered animal species, i.e., sea turtles, at risk. Furthermore, the net disturbs the seabed- releasing carbon stored in the sediments. It also reduces the capacity of these areas to absorb carbon in the future.
Read more: Is Fish Farming Sustainable?
You can maintain a balanced diet if you eat sustainably. You don't have to eat meat and fish all the time because they negatively impact the environment. Instead, you can eat mung beans, wild rice, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, mussels, and other plant-based diets. They contain nutrients you get from eating meat-based products.
Mushrooms can replace meat in your diet because they have a meaty texture. Also, you should eat sustainably because it reduces food waste. Eating sustainably is relatively easy because you can check your local supply chain for fresh produce.
Turesky, R. J. (2018). Mechanistic evidence for red meat and processed meat intake and cancer risk: A follow-up on the International Agency for Research on Cancer Evaluation of 2015. Chimia, 72(10), 718.
Mudryj, A. N., Yu, N., & Aukema, H. M. (2014). Nutritional and Health Benefits of Pulses. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.
Duarte, C. M., Bruhn, A., & Krause-Jensen, D. (2021). A Seaweed Aquaculture Imperative to Meet Global Sustainability Targets. Nature sustainability.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (2022). Mushrooms. The Nutrition Source.
Oluwajuyitan, T. D., Kadiri, O., Origbemisoye, B. A., Fagbohun, O. F., Ukejeh, R. N., Popoola, O. O., & Olawoye, B. (2021). Cereal Grain: A Vehicle for Improved Healthy Living. IntechOpen eBooks.
Waterman, J. J., (n.d.). Processing Mussels, Cockles, and Whelks.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
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