Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Here’s an Introduction to Sustainable Eating

For most of us, making sustainable eating choices whenever possible is a top priority. However, it can be very challenging for ordinary people to know if our decisions are genuinely the best ones. The definition of a sustainable eater is subjective and changes from person to person. For some, cutting back on plastic packaging is enough. For others, it’s a way of life that takes a lot of diligent effort to maintain. There’s a lot to consider when choosing what foods to purchase, such as the ingredients used, packaging, and the ethical business practices of food corporations.

vegetables sitting on a table with a knife.

There are even more complex aspects to decipher, like farming practices, preservatives, sustainable certifications, and the supply chain, that all play a role in sustainable eating. Also, sustainable eating doesn’t end when you purchase and eat your food—recycling all (or most) food packaging and composting food waste complete the sustainable eating cycle. Whether you’re testing the waters of sustainable eating or trying to streamline your current efforts, this guide should help.

Packaging Reduction

It might seem that choosing food manufacturers that work to reduce packaging is the obvious first choice in eating more sustainably. Although that’s true, supporting the companies that follow the most sustainable packaging practices isn’t easy.

While most food packaging is recyclable, sustainably progressive companies are moving toward compostable packaging. Though recycling is a noble effort, it’s not nearly as environmentally friendly as composting. Like all other materials, recycled goods are a commodity. There is more demand for some recyclable materials than others, which can bring into question if the low-demand items are actually being recycled.

By composting compostable food packaging at home or bringing it to a composting facility, you don’t have to worry about your sustainability efforts being in vain. However, the best course of action is to reduce the need for packaging altogether. By using reusable bags for groceries and bulk food items from grocers that offer them, you’ll be well on your way to maximum food sustainability practices.

The Grey restaurant Savannah
The Grey

Researching Food Producers, Retailers, and Restaurants

As a consumer of food, deciding which food producers to support is critical in sustainable eating. As a whole, the global food system accounts for 25%-30% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Land use, agriculture, and the food supply chain make up the lion’s share of GHG emissions. Supporting food producers, retailers, and restaurants that source sustainably grown, stored, packaged, and transported goods can make a big difference in the fight against climate change

Unfortunately, there’s not an easy way to know which food providers are using sustainable business practices and what precisely those business practices are. The Green Business Bureau has excellent resources on what to look for when trying to support sustainable companies. Also, though it hasn’t made its way to the U.S. yet, Foundation Earth has devised a sustainable food rating system used across the U.K. and EU. Hopefully, as sustainability becomes front and center in the states, all countries will implement strategies like these to help consumers. 

End Food Waste

While land use, agriculture, and the food supply chain make up about two-thirds of the global food system’s greenhouse gas emissions, food waste is responsible for the rest. Although the 2.1 billion tons of emissions caused by food waste is a lot, it’s also the easiest to solve.

At the consumer level, doing our part to reduce food waste in our homes through composting, meal planning, and growing our food can make a huge impact. But, at the retail level, food date label confusion is a significant cause of food waste worldwide. 

Since there has yet to be any federal food date label standardization in the U.S., massive amounts of food waste occur at the retail and consumer levels. As a sustainable eater, it’s crucial to understand that food date labeling is not based on exact science. Terms like use by, best by, and sell by are often used interchangeably by food manufacturers. 

It’s never advisable to eat spoiled food. But, just because a food is past its expiration date doesn’t mean it’s inedible. Eating sustainably means using your best judgment and taking steps not to waste food however possible. Here are some easy ways you can reduce waste from food spoilage.

  • Only purchase food you know you’ll eat. Don’t be swayed by coupons or buy-one-get-one deals. These marketing ploys are a significant cause of food waste.
  • At home, meal plan, pre-portion ingredients, and freeze any food you think might spoil before use.
  • Support food retailers that utilize digital food labels that discount food as it approaches its expiration date. 
  • If food does spoil, always compost it.

Shop Local

Shopping at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets that support local agriculture is a big part of sustainable eating. By supporting local farmers, we all can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the food supply chain. Other benefits of shopping locally are fresher, more nutritious foods and stimulating the local economy. 

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Be Conscious of Meat and Seafood Consumption

To truly consider ourselves sustainable eaters, we have to face the reality that eating meat is generating 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by food. The good news is that plant-based meat substitutes are getting better and more like the real thing every day. So if you can’t cut the meat completely, cutting back and substituting with a plant-based burger or chicken nugget is a good start. 

While fishing isn’t a significant contributor to greenhouse gasses, over-fishing can have a major impact on aquatic ecosystems. Although seafood is a healthy and delicious alternative to meats of the land, it’s important to avoid fish species that are in danger of being over-fished to extinction. Greenpeace has a helpful guide to red list fish species that are being over-fished worldwide and that we should avoid.

Editors' Recommendations

Steven Johnson
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Steven Johnson is a chef-turned-content strategist. He now helps companies attract and retain more customers through content…
Here are the benefits of taking vitamin D supplements – what you should know
Find out if you're getting enough Vitamin D or if you need help getting more
A close-up of a vitamin D capsule

It’s not always easy or feasible to consume a well-balanced and varied diet. Between juggling a busy schedule with minimal time for healthy food preparation, food allergies and intolerances, dietary preferences, and cultural eating habits, many of us fall short of meeting the nutritional recommendations for several key vitamins and minerals. Even if you cook at home and try to eat a healthy diet, you may be deficient in certain micronutrients because some essential vitamins and minerals are only found in a few food sources or are only present in low concentrations.
Vitamin D is a prime example of a vital nutrient that is not found in many common foods in the standard American diet, nor is it necessarily well absorbed when consumed in food sources. Rather, exposure of the skin to sunlight is the primary means by which the body’s vitamin D levels are increased, as exposure to UVB rays stimulates the production of vitamin D.
However, as the hours of daylight dwindle in the winter and the sun becomes less intense, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet your vitamin D needs. Because vitamin D plays several key physiological roles, it may be advisable to take vitamin D supplements. Keep reading for our helpful primer on the functions and benefits of vitamin D, foods high in vitamin D, and whether vitamin D supplementation may be useful.

What is vitamin D?
Along with vitamins A, E, and K, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it's stored in the body rather than excreted like vitamins C and B vitamins. However, unlike any other vitamin, vitamin D is actually a steroid hormone produced from cholesterol when skin cells are exposed to UVB rays. In addition to the endogenous production of vitamin D, there are two different dietary forms of the nutrient:

Read more
What to eat before a workout: These are the best pre-workout snacks
The best pre-workout snacks to fuel your workout
best pre-workout snacks.

Whether you work out first thing in the morning or hit the gym after work, a portion of healthy pre-workout food is an important step in fueling your body for the exercise ahead. Not sure what to eat before a workout? A pre-workout snack should contain carbohydrates to top off your energy stores, protein to provide amino acids to your muscles, and fat to keep hunger at bay and blood sugar levels stable. Good pre-workout snacks leave you feeling energized and strong without feeling bloated, heavy, or running to the bathroom, so they should contain complex carbohydrates without an excessive amount of fiber, fat, or volume.
Rich foods or excess protein can cause heartburn and indigestion during exercise, so opt for light, balanced pre-workout snacks. Pre-workout snacks should ideally be consumed 30-90 minutes before exercise, depending on the type of exercise you’ll be doing, the planned intensity and duration, how hungry versus fueled you feel, and what you are eating for your pre-workout snack. The closer it is to your workout, the lighter and more carbohydrate-based the snack should be because protein and fat will slow digestion, potentially reducing the effectiveness of your pre-workout snack.
Ultimately, fueling yourself properly with the best pre-workout snacks before you hit the gym, head out on a run, or take a spin class will allow your body to have the nutrients and building blocks it needs to power your activity and maximize the gains from your workout. If you’re overly hungry, weak, and lacking the glycogen needed to push your body, your performance will be lower and you’ll make slower progress on your fitness goals. Therefore, keep reading for our recommendations for the best pre-workout snacks to step up your fueling game and take your workout gains to the next level.

The best pre-workout snacks to try
Cheese, fruit, and turkey
Cheese and fruit or fruit and a protein like chicken breast, turkey, tuna, tofu, or tempeh provide a balance of sustained energy and quick energy before you work out. You can even make a small wrap with a whole-grain tortilla, cheese, a few veggies, and your favorite protein. Just make sure to keep the portion small or eat it 90 minutes or so before you hit the gym to give your stomach ample time to digest.

Read more
Did you know these popular foods are high in saturated fat?
The foods high in saturated fat you may want to cut out of your diet
An array of meats and cheeses.

Saturated fat is a fat that is solid when at room temperature. This happens because all of the carbon molecules are connected by double bonds. Butter is an example of a food high in saturated fat. On the other hand, olive oil contains unsaturated fats, and that is why it is liquid at room temperature rather than solid.

Foods high in saturated fat have long been associated with raising “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and certain inflammatory conditions. However, there is also newer evidence potentially debunking this thinking, as some studies show that certain saturated fats, such as those found in coconut, can lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Most nutritionists and dietitians suggest limiting your intake of processed saturated fats—such as those in hot dogs, doughnuts, or mayonnaise—to no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake or a daily value of 20 grams. Instead, focus on foods high in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, such as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Not sure what kind of fat is in your favorite foods? Keep reading for a list of high saturated fats foods, and see if you can replace some of them with healthier options.

Read more