A substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) has been attributed to the food sector, but little is known about the association between the carbon footprint of individual self-selected diets in the United States and nutritional quality.
The aims of this study were to assess the GHGE from individual self-selected diets in the United States and examine their association with nutritional quality of the diets, demographic patterns, and food-related behaviors.
The dietary GHGE from US adults (>18 y, N = 16,800) in the 2005–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) were calculated by linking all foods consumed in their 24-h recall diets to our new database of food environmental impacts. Diets were ranked by GHGE/1000 kcal. Those in the top and bottom quintiles were compared on the US Healthy Eating Index (HEI) and on the amounts of specific nutrients known to be under- or overconsumed in the US population. Demographic and behavioral variables from the NHANES were also correlated to these dietary carbon footprints.
Diets in the bottom quintile accounted for one-fifth the total emissions (GHGE/1000 kcal) of those in the top quintile, yet had significantly higher (P < 0.001) HEI scores by 2.3 ± 0.7 points on a 100-point scale. These low-GHGE diets contained higher amounts of fiber and vitamin E and lower amounts of sodium and saturated fats, whereas high-GHGE diets contained higher amounts of vitamins A and D, choline, calcium, iron, and potassium. Low-GHGE diets had less meat, dairy, and solid fats, and more poultry, plant protein foods, oils, whole and refined grains, and added sugars.
Food patterns responsible for lower GHGE had a better overall diet quality and were more nutritious on several key dimensions, although not all. These results can inform dietary guidance and other policies that seek to address the goals of improved dietary intakes and reduced food-related emissions.