Yesterday was our 18th wedding anniversary, and Brian and I ate at a seasonal, sustainable restaurant in Philadelphia. We ordered deviled eggs and a cheese plate as appetizers. If I know I'll be eating meat for my entrée, I always make sure my appetizer is vegetarian to try to lessen the environmental impact of my meal.

I woke up today to find that, according to the Environmental Working Group, perhaps ordering the smoked chicken wings appetizer on the restaurant's menu might have been an environmentally-friendlier option than the cheese plate. I'm not going to feel guilty about that cheese plate, however. I enjoyed every bite.

EWG just released its latest study, the Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health. To try to put the findings in perspective, the "At a Glance Brochure" compares how many miles you'd have to drive in a car to have the same environmental impact as eating four ounces of certain foods. Lamb is the worst offender on their list of foods. They say eating four ounces of lamb has twice the environmental impact of eating four ounces of beef, which is the equivalent of driving six and a half miles.

Coming in third on their list is cheese, above chicken, turkey, pork, salmon and tuna. The study says that less dense cheeses, like cottage cheese, have less of an impact than others because they are made with less milk. It's the amount of milk that goes into making cheese that causes it to be so high on the environmental impact list, but on average eating four ounces of cheese is the equivalent of driving a little over three and a half miles.

When studies like this one come out with neat little graphics that help to put things in perspective, it would be easy to get discouraged about eating in general if all you did was go by the information on the "At a Glance Brochure." It might make someone that had chosen the meal I chose last night at dinner feel guilty or helpless to actually make wise choices. It might make someone who has been serving pizza or lasagna as their Meatless Monday choices feel as if their efforts have been in vain.

It's a good idea to read over the entire report so you can read encouraging findings like, "meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging."

Yes, there is an environmental impact to everything we eat, but we must eat, and we should absolutely enjoy what we eat. My advice is to take the information from a study like this, add it to your knowledge of how your actions impact the environment, and use it to guide your choices — not to create some hard and fast list of rules for eating. There are lots of other ways to reduce the environmental impact of your food choices if you want to eat a cheese plate instead of chicken wings (and I will always want to eat the cheese plate instead of chicken wings).

  • Buy sustainably raised and grown food.
  • Don't waste food. If you choose higher impact foods like beef and cheese, make sure you eat them before they go bad.
  • Eat smaller portions of the higher impact foods and round out meals with satisfying lower impact foods. A four-ounce steak covered in mushrooms seems just as satisfying as a steak twice as big to me.

If you follow these tips as well as incorporating information from sources like EWG's report, you can lessen the impact of your food while eating some of the foods higher on the impact list or making lasagna on Meatless Monday.  

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