Sustainable eating: which foods have the highest and lowest environmental impacts?

Sustainability is the buzzword of 2019, and you shouldn’t expect the momentum to slow anytime soon. From fashion to travel, eco-friendly initiatives are at the forefront of developments, but when it comes to sustainable eating, what could we be doing differently?

We asked Harley Street nutritionist Kim Pearson to share with us the best and worst foods in terms of their impact on the environment. So how can we minimise our diet’s impact?

Eating seasonal, local produce is a great place to start (locate your nearest farmer’s market immediately), but there are also certain foods that are more ecologically problematic than others. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as simple as cutting out whole food groups such as meat or dairy, either, as some plant-based options use a lot more energy or water resources to produce than others. Take the first step in your eco-eating journey by making a notes of these foods with the highest and lowest environmental impact.

Lamb is more damaging for the environment than beef (Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash)

Foods with the Highest Environmental Impacts


People often state beef to be the least environmentally friendly food source, but in fact lamb has a 50 per cent higher greenhouse gas emissions level than beef, according to the Environmental Working Group. Lambs provide a lot less edible meat than cows, hence the overall higher environmental impact.


Both deforestation and high feed requirements add to the negative environmental impact of beef farming, and it takes roughly 2500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef. It is second only to lamb on the scale, and comes in just above pork.


The environmental impact of the dairy farming process involved to create enough milk to produce cheese is enormous – cheese production produces roughly thirteen times the amount of carbon emissions than foods like lentils and tomatoes. 


A lot of people assume that avoiding animal products means they’re in the clear when it comes to eco-guilt, but of some plant foods require a lot more resources to produce than others. It takes one gallon of water to produce each and every solitary almond and some nut farming methods are not only ecologically harmful, but pose humanitarian issues, too. For example, many workers in the booming cashew industry are reported to earn no more than £1.75 a day, often suffering burns from the acid contained in the outer layers of the nuts.

Tomatoes have a low impact on the environment (Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)

Foods with the Lowest Environmental Impacts


An increasingly popular pulse, meat alternative and a healthy addition to your diet, lentils are not only easy on the budget, they’re easy on the environment, too. As a comparison, the carbon emissions for lentils are 40 times lower than the worst offender, lamb.


Farmed salmon is one of the least environmentally friendly fish out there, so swap it for mussels, a brilliant source of omega-3 and a healthy protein source. ‘Farmed’ mussels are generally raised on ropes hung in the ocean, causing very little environmental damage.


Another fantastic environmentally-friendly choice is the tomato, with emissions of just 1.1kg of CO2 per kg of tomatoes. They’re super easy to grow at home and take up little space meaning that even a small balcony can accommodate a growing bag, so go the extra mile by planting your own.

Of course, with all of these foods you should also bear in mind where these foods are being produced and imported from, since the transportation of food adds to their carbon footprint enormously. The production methods are also hugely important, so buying organic/traditionally produced, local produce is always generally your best option where possible.


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