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Getting started: How to Eat a Sustainable Diet

Climate change will affect us all in one way or another. With 28% of all global emissions coming from agriculture, we will need to make more conscious decisions about our food consumption. In attempts to make the “right” choices when it comes to sustainable living. Walking instead of driving, swapping out our lightbulbs, and considering longevity in our purchases are just a few examples. But we can’t give up eating, so how can we be more sustainable with our diets?

You’re not alone! A recent study conducted by Bournemouth University was published in a journal called Appetite found that many participants were unclear about the definition of a sustainable diet or if it had anything to do with helping the planet. Particularly, many were uncertain of where to start with making changes to their diet.

Sustainable diets have several definitions – we even have our own on this website! While many of us strive to make the “right” choices with our diet, it’s essential to consider the many variables in food sustainability. Along with health, learning more about where our food comes from and how it’s processed can help guide us toward making better choices for us and the planet.

variety of gourds and pumpkins on wooden cart
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Sustainable Diets Fundamentals: Farm to Fork

Farm-to-fork is a term commonly used to describe locally grown and minimally processed food. Typically, this process infers that the food supply chain is short and the food has been grown locally. It’s beneficial in many ways because you are sourcing ingredients at peak freshness while supporting your local economy. This phrase applies to any agricultural or food product. The process of farm to fork describes all of the steps that bring food to your plate. From quite literally the farm where it’s grown, to where it is transported, to where and how it is processed to the grocery store or market, to how it ends up on your plate. 

 When evaluating the sustainability of a product, it’s critical to factor in all of the components. For example, a simple yogurt with only five ingredients needs to source ingredients likely from various locations. This might involve getting the milk from one farm, the sugar from a supplier – which likely sourced it from another country, the fermenting cultures from a different supplier, and so on. All of these components have their own method of sustainability to get from the farm it is grown on to your fork. 


 The best way to have the lowest impact on your farm-to-fork is to prepare much of your food at home and buy local ingredients that are in season from your local farmers. You can do quite a few options, such as shopping at a farmers market. Or you can join a CSA – which can be expensive upfront but fruitful for a long season. Knowing where your food comes from and how it’s grown is essential for a sustainable diet. 

 Simple actions you can take: 

 When grocery shopping, read your country of origin stickers on your produce and see how far your food had to travel to get to you. Try to purchase food in season from local farmers or farm stands to support your local economy. If you want to learn more about food miles, check out our article here.

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Sustainable Diets Fundamentals: Food Processing


 It’s easy to conclude that processed food is bad for us. However, food processing can be highly beneficial in keeping our food safe from harmful bacteria, easier to digest and even extending the shelf-life of your food. A few examples of food processing that benefit our food supply chain are frozen produce, pasteurized eggs and dairy products, and water treatment facilities that ensure our water is safe to drink. 

 Food processing carries a negative perception to some. Still, we must consider the type and amount of processing that goes into a food product. Food processing is a spectrum, and each product you see is unique depending on the product type and even the manufacturing company. Manufacturing can be incredibly resource-intensive, so each additional step needed can increase associated emissions. 

Here’s a reference chart to understand the different types of food processing and how you can decide on a more sustainable product selection. 



 Simple actions you can take: 

Select minimally processed food that still offers nutritional value. Consider your ability to consume the products within their shelf life without creating waste. 

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Sustainable Diets Fundamentals: Food Packaging

Did you know that only 7% of the world’s plastic actually gets recycled? If you’ve seen the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you’ll know that much of this plastic accumulates in the ocean. While this doesn’t mean we should stop trying to recycle altogether, it means we should do our part to limit our plastic intake.

Food packaging contains so much plastic. From thin films that are difficult to recycle to plastic labels on plastic jars, plastic is omnipresent. Sometimes fresh produce is wrapped in plastic to preserve its quality.

Some companies have converted their packaging to glass to reduce plastic packaging. The benefit of using glass jars is that they are versatile after initial use. The downside of using glass jars is that they are heavier, resulting in more weight needed for transportation. Food manufacturers may not want to use glass jars because they can pose considerable health and safety risks if there are any problems. Repurposing the jars serves as the best option when purchasing products in glass containers.

Paper or cardboard packaging is increasing its presence in grocery stores. However, some cardboard packaging still has plastic inside, so be sure to check if it’s possible -try not to damage the packaging.

Simple action you can take now:

Get creative and try to reuse or upcycle the packaging. Look for products with less packaging. See if there is a more sustainable alternative, such as glass. See if you can purchase foods with minimal plastic packaging or packaging in general. Avoid purchasing individually wrapped items to reduce your plastic waste.

basil leaves and avocado on sliced bread on white ceramic plate
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Sustainable Diets Fundamentals: Limiting your meat and dairy intake

The single biggest step you can take towards a more sustainable diet is to reduce your meat and dairy intake. Meat and dairy have enormous carbon footprints. They are resource intensive because they require double the resources to produce.

Meat production accounts for about 60% of all emissions from food production, and represents 35% of all global emissions according to an article by the Guardian. You have to spend a minimum of two years feeding cattle before it’s ready for slaughter. That’s two years of food to feed cows – that’s a lot of food.

There are many great resources available to learn more about the impacts of meat and dairy production. Be sure to look for reputable sources for more information.

Simple actions you can take:

If you’re looking for more some tasty ways to incorporate more sustainable recipes into your diet, be sure to check out our recipes page! Find some of our favorites below:

It’s important to know where our food comes from and the implications of our product purchases. If you enjoyed this article, please share with others, and follow Made to Sustain for more content like this.

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