Low impact eating without going vegan

We’ve all heard that the single most impactful thing we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint is eat a vegan diet. Emissions from our diet are the largest portion of our emissions that we can reduce directly. I have been a vegetarian, with varying levels of commitment, for years now; for seven months of last year, I ate a vegan diet. None of my close friends or family are vegetarian or vegan, and I grew up meat and potatoes like many others. While I eat vegan as much as I can, I am still vegetarian. I know most people won’t be going vegetarian, let alone vegan, any time soon.

It’s tempting to continue as if we’re collectively on the road to a vegan diet, but we’re not, and in order for more people to actively reduce their carbon footprints via diet, we have to meet people where they’re at. There are many things we can do to reduce the emissions from our diet through reducing our consumption of animal products, reducing food waste, and eating locally. According to the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable systems, “eating all locally grown food for one year could save the GHG {greenhouse gas} equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles”. In other words, our dietary choices have an impact even without going vegan, and there are ways to do better.

The following are ways to eat a more zero waste and low impact diet, right where you are:

Meatless Monday

There’s something sitcom-y about Meatless Monday; it evokes the scene of a family about to erupt in a silly argument after the mother figure brings in a sad, brown, lentil loaf and announces (in a sing-song voice) that, “It’s Meatless Monday!” I don’t recommend you replicate this in your own life, unless you are a true lentil fan. If you know that you eat more animal products and meat than the average bear and haven’t yet started to reduce your consumption of those foods, I suggest implementing Meatless Monday strictly and immediately. It’s only one day a week, and it allows you to begin experimenting with ordering or cooking vegetarian meals and getting an idea of what meals without meat look like.


University of Michigan Carbon Footprint Factsheet

One vegetarian meal a day

This isn’t a movement or a lifestyle, but eating one vegetarian meal a day is an easy place to begin reducing diet related emissions. As a vegetarian, I strive to eat at least one vegan meal a day. As someone who eats animals and animal products, you can strive for something similar, perhaps one vegetarian meal a day or something like vegan for breakfast, vegetarian for lunch, and omnivorous at dinner.


For anyone dipping their toes in the water of reducing their emissions through their diet, a reducitarian approach is the best choice because it’s much easier for us to stick to gradual change than throwing ourselves into something totally unfamiliar, like going vegan overnight. Reducitarian (sounds appetizing, right?) is about reducing your consumption of meat and animal products in a concerted effort, without strictly letting go of certain foods or limiting when they’re eaten.

This informal meat reduction should be done consciously, however, because while eating less meat is a good place to start, products like cheese have a larger carbon footprint than some meats and the solution is not to trade in one resource intensive food for another. In all of your endeavors to have a lighter impact on the earth, be sure that your alternative is actually better than what you’re already doing, so if we use the information from the University of Michigan Carbon Footprint Factsheet, it’s not advisable to cut your egg consumption in favor of eating more cheese.

I don’t advocate for eating more meat, but in the name of full disclosure some meats are less damaging to the earth than others:

“A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but switching to less carbon intensive meats can have a major impact as well. For example, replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds CO2e.”-University of Michigan Carbon Footprint Factsheet

If you’re attempting a reducitarian approach, you might begin by cutting out meat from certain meals, adopting a strict Meatless Monday policy, using non-dairy milk and cooking more vegetarian meals.


Nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the livestock industry. (That’s more than cars, planes, and trains combined.) It takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef.
— Eco Etiquette: Can You Be A Weekday Vegetarian?, Jennifer Grayson

If you’re reading this at all, you’re probably resistant to adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. This 2016 article claims that while 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian, an additional 22.8 million are flexitarian, meaning they primarily eat a vegetarian diet, but eat meat occasionally. The flexitarian diet might look like vegetarian meals all week, but ordering a dish with meat over the weekend. I think this is a reasonable approach because it doesn’t ask people to stop eating foods they may like, but to simply eat meat less frequently. The problem that comes to mind is that exactly what counts as occasionally may vary between perspectives; is one meal with meat a day flexitarian? Is one meal with meat a week flexitarian? While it may seem silly to hash out frequency issues, more than half of Americans think a meal without meat is incomplete. Plenty of people eat meat at least three times a day, and while any reduction in meat consumption is better for the earth than continuing with a diet laden with animal products, perception of what is occasional meat will vary depending on how much meat someone considers to be a normal amount of meat to be eating anyway. So, proceed with caution because without a specific definition of occasional meat consumption, almost anyone is a flexitarian if they manage a meal or snack without meat between meals with meat.


Weekday vegetarian or vegan

A relatively regimented way to reduce your consumption of meat is to become a weekday vegetarian, or weekday vegan. It’s as simple as it sounds; Monday-Friday, no meat, or “nothing with a face”, and on the weekends, people eat meat in moderation. The popular TED Talk “Why I’m a weekday vegetarian” estimates that our meat consumption has doubled since the 1950s, and that a weekday vegetarian reduces their meat consumption by 70%. If you’re someone looking to reduce, but don’t know where to start, weekday vegetarian or vegan is a change that allows you to make an impact without totally changing your diet. It’s a big jump if you’re someone who eats meat at most meals or a vegetarian who relies heavily on dairy or eggs (like I was), however, it also eases any worries you may have about avoiding meat or animal products in social situations since most people go out on weekends when meat is in the clear.

At-home vegan

At-home vegan and at-home vegetarian are variations on a lower footprint diet that I find easily manageable. In the home, everything is vegetarian or vegan, but at restaurants, parties, etc. people will eat animal products. It’s worth noting this is most impactful for people who tend to eat at home most of the time; if you eat out every day for lunch, it may still make an impact, but much less than if you’re someone who only eats out once a week (or less). When I ate vegan for 7 months, everything in my kitchen was vegan, so when I was hungry, I never had to think about what was and wasn’t vegan. When I did go to dinner with family or out to a restaurant, I would sometimes order the vegetarian option. I found eating 95% vegan was comfortable for me, and on those rare occasions I did eat cheese, it tasted much better than when I was eating vegetarian.

Waste has an environmental toll, with the volume of discarded food equivalent to the yearly use of 30m acres of land, 780m pounds of pesticide and 4.2tn gallons of irrigated water. Rotting food also clogs up landfills and releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
— Americans waste 150,000 tons of food each day – equal to a pound per person, Oliver Milman

Tackling Food waste

If you’re not eating your leftovers in 2019, you must have missed the memo of food scarcity throughout all of human history. In 2018 it was estimated that about 150,000 tons, or 300,000,000 lbs (three hundred million pounds) of food are thrown out in American homes every day. For each person, that’s about one third of their daily calories. The foods most likely to be tossed are perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. Considering the cost of fresh fruit and veg, as well as meat, it’s even more surprising so many of us let these foods spoil.

Outside of our homes, the USDA estimated that in 2010, “31 percent or 133 billion pounds of the 430 billion pounds of food produced was not available for human consumption at the retail and consumer levels” (x). In other words, one third of the food produced for eating was not eaten, and it never even made it into a store or restaurant. Couple that with our household waste of food, and we could feed a huge number of hungry people. 

To make whatever diet you eat lighter on the earth, be sure to eat leftovers, not over-order or over-prepare, purchase discounted food about to expire and be thrown away, and pick ugly produce or loose bananas; the EPA suggests preparing fresh food right after purchase so that it’s ready to be eaten and doesn’t spoil before you have the chance to prepare it.  The problem is obviously systematic and what we do in our homes won’t prevent the 31% of food grown for people that never becomes available to consumers from being wasted, but it can help reduce the three hundred million pounds of food thrown out in households every day.  

Eating local

You’ve heard before that eating local is the best choice, and that is often true. When it comes to sourcing food in the USA, it’s best to think of local food rather than domestic food. Depending on where you are in the US, imported food may be traveling less distance than some domestically grown food. For example, if you live on the east coast, food coming from California has traveled a considerable distance to arrive on your plate.


Various factors go into which fruits and vegetables have the lowest impact, especially if you live somewhere with short growing seasons. Greenhouse grown foods might have more initial inputs, like electricity to heat greenhouses, than foods grown outside, which have warmth and light inputs provided without the use of more resources. However, when compared to a vegetable grown outside in a warmer climate, the greenhouse grown product may be have a lighter footprint if it traveled less distance. Similarly, when something is in season locally and you choose between imported and local, local is much more likely to be the greener choice.

Other factors to consider regarding if local produce has a lighter footprint than food that travels is where the food is grown. If new land locally is cleared to become farmland, the conversion from natural habitat to farmland may have an ultimately detrimental effect due to increased greenhouse gas emissions (587). While most of us consume local produce fresh, if we consume it after it’s been frozen, for example, the impact of the food changes again because energy is needed to freeze and keep foods frozen, which Edwards-Jones suggests could use enough resources to put it on par with food that travels (586). Edwards-Jones uses the example of UK and New Zealand grown apples to demonstrate this; the two countries have opposite growing seasons, meaning that apples from New Zealand are in season many months after UK apples have been harvested and stored. As storage time in the UK increases, more and more resources are used to keep local food safe for consumption, which is accompanied by the decreasing quality of the apples the longer they are stored. Conversely, fresh apples from New Zealand are shipped by boat, meaning relatively low greenhouse gas emissions from transport. By the time the apple harvest begins in New Zealand, apples from the UK are no longer necessarily a greener option considering transportation and storage emissions (Edwards-Jones 585).

In short, eating locally can be a great way to have a lighter footprint with your diet, but it’s not always the case. Eating in season is equally important. If you’re unfamiliar with growing seasons, look into what is in season and try and source those foods locally.

Don’t locally grown foods provide better nutrition than imported foods?

It depends on how the produce is stored and for how long; there is some evidence that the nutritional content of food is highest right after harvest, but proximity of where something is grown and where or when it is eaten isn’t as simple as being close and eaten quickly. In some cases, food shipped from far away may be eaten sooner after harvest than local foods depending on how quickly the food is distributed. Edwards-Jones’ conclusions in “Does eating local food reduce the environmental impact of food production and enhance consumer health?” is that we can’t claim locally grown food always has more nutrients than imported food because there are too many factors influencing when and if this is true. (Edward-Jones 588)

Hunting and fishing

While we’re discussing local food, I’ll mention that fishing and hunting can be very green. A great deal of funding for national and state conservation efforts comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Legal hunting doesn’t require further inputs of animal feed, shelter, etc. like raising animals for slaughter, meaning it calls for fewer non-renewable resources. As long as you aren’t traveling great distances and creating unnecessary transportation emissions, hunted and fished meats are eco-friendly options.


You’ve seen a hundred times that composting is the green choice for dealing with food waste, but it might not seem like a big deal; after all, organic material can just decompose in landfill. Unfortunately, it’s not comparing apples to apples. The EPA says composting is one way to reduce methane, a greenhouse gas, created when foods decompose in landfill. Decomposition in a compost emits C02, but results in a usable compost. When foods break down in landfill, they release methane, which has a significantly higher warming factor than CO2, and the nutrients from the food once it’s broken down can’t be returned to the soil since they’re effectively mixed with everything else that goes to landfill. 

In 2015, barely 2 million tons of food waste was composted, which is only 5.3% of the 39,000,000 (thirty-nine million) tons, or 78,000,000,000 (seventy-eight billion) pounds, of food waste produced. While the amount of food wasted is a concern in itself, the waste of resources is worsened considering the nutrients that the food could have provided as rich compost are also lost in exchange for large amounts of methane entering the atmosphere unnecessarily.  

Happy eating, composting, and cooking. As you begin or continue making your diet lighter on the earth, remember it’s not all or nothing. While keeping a vegan diet is commendable and doable, we can approach a zero waste or low impact diet from all angles.