RDs may or may not realize that much of the US food system negatively affects the environment. In fact, it’s responsible for around 25% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. This impact is due to not only how food is produced but also how it’s distributed and consumed. Every day, the average person makes more than a dozen decisions about their food. As a dietitian, your advice to consumers can have a game-changing impact on our environment. A couple of simple tips on making more eco-friendly purchases from a seasoned professional like yourself has the potential to help preserve the health of our planet and, ultimately, us!
Below are four ways RDs can help consumers make more sustainable purchases.
1. Champion buying local. The average meal travels a whopping 1,500 miles to arrive on a dinner plate, with fossil fuel required for transportation. Help consumers make more eco-friendly choices by not only sharing information about the nearest farmers markets or local bakeries but also familiarizing your clients with “made in” statements on food labels that identify where their food products are produced. If you’re on the West Coast, for instance, chances are there’s a just-as-delicious local alternative to your client’s favorite hummus that hasn’t journeyed all the way from Pennsylvania.
2. Advocate for purchasing plant-based foods more often at both grocery stores and restaurants. Current animal agriculture practices are a large contributor to deforestation and air and water pollution, and they’re one of the biggest overall contributors to greenhouse gases. Reducing meat and dairy consumption is a significant way your clients can offset their carbon footprint.
That said, it can be a bit daunting to purchase an unfamiliar plant food if one doesn’t know what to do with them, so be sure to outfit clients with recipes and ideas for using these ingredients so they don’t go to waste in the pantry or refrigerator. Combining a bit of meat with plant-based proteins can offer the flavor of someone’s favorite animal foods without making them the main source of the meal.
3. Educate on buying from the bulk section. Less packaging means less garbage, and buying “just what you need” usually translates to less food waste, another big culprit of greenhouse gases in our food system.
Many consumers avoid the bulk foods area of the grocery store, not fully understanding what all lurks inside those large bins that lack the comforting cooking instructions found on the back of a box. The more RDs provide education on how to best prepare less familiar items available in bulk such as beans, grains, and nuts and seeds, the more likely consumers are to gravitate to this department. Many clients may be surprised to learn that the bulk section often includes familiar items such as pasta, oats, and rice, the purchase of which may soften the impact not only on the environment but also on their wallets.
4. Encourage use of reusable mugs, containers, and bottles. Every day 60 million plastic water bottles wind up in landfills, and ultimately in our oceans and soil. You’re likely encouraging your clients to stay hydrated, so why not go the extra step to recommend a reusable water bottle they can take along when they’re out and about. They also can invest in a portable mug to take to their local coffee shop! (Did you know that 25 billion paper coffee cups are tossed out every year?)
In addition, you can suggest clients who dine out regularly to bring their own glass storage containers for leftovers. Some might even be open to bringing their own cloth napkin and reusable utensils for informal dine-out options. It’s great to remind consumers that even compostable items still require energy and resources to produce and dispose of.
As dietitians, we have the potential to extend our sessions with clients beyond typical health and nutrition recommendations. Education about and help implementing more eco-friendly behaviors couldn’t be more important to working toward a sustainable future with healthy soil, water, and air. RDs have a tremendous opportunity to lead the charge by helping to shift food choices in a more environmentally friendly direction to make our food system more sustainable for generations to come.
— Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree from Bastyr University, where she’s currently adjunct faculty. She has provided clinical nutrition counseling for the past 12 years, hosts the podcast Mary’s Nutrition Show, and speaks regularly at a variety of conferences.