Simple Diet Swaps Cut Carbon, Improve Health

Curbing carbon emissions and eating healthier may both start at the dinner table.

According to a new study co-authored by a Tulane University researcher and published in the journal Nature Food, making simple substitutions like switching from beef to chicken or drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk could reduce the average American’s carbon footprint from food by 35%, while also boosting diet quality by between 4-10%, according to the study.

These findings highlight the potential of a “small changes” approach that researchers believe could encourage more consumers to adopt climate-friendly eating habits. Food production accounts for 25-33% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions with beef production being a primary contributor.

The study, which analyzed diet data from over 7,700 Americans, identified commonly eaten foods with the highest climate impact and simulated replacing them with nutritionally similar, lower-emission options.

The largest projected reductions in emissions were seen in mixed dishes: burritos, pastas and similar popular dishes where it’s easy to substitute a lower-impact protein instead of beef.

The study expanded on past research by including dietary data for children. Whereas it may be more effective for an adult to focus on protein swaps, Grummon said switching children to plant-based milk can have a “meaningful impact on the carbon footprint” and help start positive habits earlier.

Identifying healthy alternatives to high-carbon foods was not the intent of the study. And yet, swapping to lower carbon foods showed “sizable improvements in how healthy the diets were.”


Anna H. Grummon, Cristina J. Y. Lee, Thomas N. Robinson, Eric B. Rimm, Donald Rose. Simple dietary substitutions can reduce carbon footprints and improve dietary quality across diverse segments of the US population. Nature Food, 2023; DOI: 10.1038/s43016-023-00864-0

Tulane University. (2023, October 26). Study shows simple diet swaps can cut carbon emissions and improve your health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 26, 2023 from

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