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Addressing the carbon footprint, healthfulness, and costs of self-selected diets in the USA: a population-based cross-sectional study

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Full Publication Date
March 1, 2020

Background The role of diet in health is well established and, in the past decade, more attention has been given to the role of food choices in the environment. The agricultural sector produces about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), and meat production, especially beef, is an important contributor to global GHGE. Our study aimed to address a fundamental gap in the diet-climate literature: identifying consumers who are receptive to making dietary changes, and the effect of their potential changes on GHGE, diet healthfulness, and diet costs.

Methods Dietary data on US individuals from a nationally representative survey were linked to food-related GHGE. We identified individuals receptive to changing their diets (potential changers) as those who reported trying US dietary guidance and were likely to agree that humans contribute to climate change. We assessed GHGE, diet healthfulness measured by the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), and diet costs before and after hypothetical changes replacing either beef or meats with poultry or plant-protein foods. 

Findings Our sample comprised 7188 individuals, of whom 16% were potential changers. These were disproportionately women, highly educated, or had higher income compared with individuals deemed not likely to change. Replacing 100% of beef intake in potential changers with poultry reduced mean dietary GHGE by 1·38 kg CO2-equivalents per person per day (95% CI 1·19–1·58), a 35·7% decrease. This replacement also increased mean HEI by 1·7% and reduced mean diet costs by 1·7%. We observed the largest changes when replacing all beef, pork, or poultry intake with plant-protein foods (GHGE decreased by 49·6%, mean HEI increased by 8·7%, and dietary costs decreased by 10·5%). Hypothetical replacements in the potential changers alone resulted in whole population reductions in 1-day dietary GHGE of 1·2% to 6·7%, equivalent to 22–126 million fewer passenger vehicle km.

Interpretation Individual-level diet studies that include a variation in response by consumers can improve our understanding of the effects of climate policies such as those that include sustainability information in national dietary guidance. In our study, we found that changes by a small percentage of motivated individuals can modestly reduce the national dietary GHGE. Moreover, these substitutions can modestly improve diet healthfulness and reduce diet costs for individuals who make these changes.

Amelia Willits-Smith
Diego (Donald) Rose
Rodrigo Aranda
Research Areas
Food & Agriculture
Food Systems and Consumer Products
Publication Type
Journal Article
Digital Object Identifier
Full Citation
Willets-Smith, Amelia, Rodrigo Aranda, Martin C. Heller, and Donald Rose. (2020) “Addressing the carbon footprint, healthfulness, and costs of self-selected diets in the USA: a population-based cross-sectional study.” The Lancet Planetary Health 4(3): E98-E106.