Is a ketogenic diet bad for the environment?
Do you have to be a vegan to eat an eco-friendly diet?
Woke eaters know whether you’re buying food from your local supermarket or your neighborhood farmers market, every decision you make has the potential to impact the planet.
But is a keto diet doing more harm for the environment than good for your body?
Since you probably already know about all the health benefits of following a low carb/high fat way of eating, today you’ll learn how to make more eco-conscious decisions without ditching ketosis.
You’ll have everything you need to start your new green keto life, including finding out:
- The environmental cost of food production
- How to stick to a conscious keto diet
- 6 ways to be more environmentally friendly
Let’s start with a few facts about what feeding Mother Earth’s population does to her health.
You may never stop to consider what it takes for all the components of your food to wind up on your plate.
But studies have linked the current food system to[*]:
- The depletion of natural resources
- Disturbing the balance of delicate ecosystems
- Contaminating land, soil and air with pollutants and chemicals
- Harming human health.
Food pollution has even been correlated with mild to severe illnesses and the development of hormonal imbalances, metabolic issues (i.e., weight gain and insulin resistance) and even certain types of cancer[*].
You don’t need to be a tree hugger to find all those issues scary. So let’s examine why they exist:
Meat Creates Methane Gas — And That’s Not Good
The ketogenic diet can rely heavily on meat and animal products.
Fruit, veggies and grains have the lowest impact on the environment whereas animal products have the highest.
Just to bring your protein to the table, sellers have to:
- Breed animals
- Feed them portions of our crops
- Dispose of their waste
- Use tons of energy for processing, refrigeration, storage, etc.
Then there’s the transportation involved in all this livestock, which we’ll discuss a bit later. But even this isn’t as bad as the problem with methane.
See, when bacteria ferment in the guts of animals like cows and pigs, they emit methane gas via burping, farting or pooping as a result.
Livestock is responsible for 44% of methane gas pollution[*].
Here’s the bad news: methane is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming.
Known as the “greenhouse effect”, an increase in greenhouse gases leads to[*]:
- Warmer temperatures
- Higher precipitation, which can lead to flooding and sea level rise
- More extreme weather events like hurricanes, blizzards and severe storms
- Increased droughts and forest fires
- Lower crop yield
All these reasons and more are why methane gas is considered a climate change agent that’s 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, which comes from car emissions[*].
The worst part of this hot air is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t regulate the methane emissions caused by livestock[*]. Great, right?
And all that livestock needs somewhere to live too…
Increased Deforestation and Less Biodiversity
Deforestation, or the clearing of land to be used for purposes other than what nature intended, is also rampant in the name of food production.
Estimates say feeding the population is responsible for 80% of worldwide deforestation[*].
That’s because it takes an estimated 3.25 acres to feed one person on the Standard American Diet.
Multiply that by Earth’s 7 billion mouths and you wind up with needing over 21 billion acres of land — or about three planets worth — just for food[*].
And yet again, livestock is more to blame than veggies.
Reports show 75% of all land marked for agriculture is used to breed, grow and harvest livestock[*].
Compared to producing soybeans and tofu, it takes[*]:
- 32–900 times more land to raise beef
- 73 times more land for lamb
- 10–16 times more land for chicken
When we lose these natural habitats, we also lose the varied species of plants and animals living there. And that’s why livestock is also blamed for 30% of worldwide biodiversity loss[*].
Besides clearing the land manually, the use of pesticides and fertilizers kills off everything so it has to vacate the premises forcibly.
Pesticides and Fertilizers Destroy the Environment
There’s a lot that goes into protecting your produce from unwanted damage, such as using agriculture chemicals like[*]:
- Pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides
- Synthetic fertilizers
Using pesticides on crops and animals not only endangers your health but also impacts the health of farmers, field workers and people living in nearby neighborhoods[*].
These chemicals are known carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, even though they’re approved for use by the EPA[*].
Besides eating these when you don’t buy organic, the residue of these chemicals gets in lakes, ponds, rivers and other watery reservoirs[*].
Rain carries this runoff away and can poison drinking water and aquatic ecosystems to damage both human and wildlife.
Water is Scarce Enough
Farmers and ranchers need to use water just to keep their crops and animals alive. And water isn’t an infinite resource, as people living in draught zones know all too well.
Per serving, here’s how much water it takes to get 1kg of these to your mouth[*]:
- Apples 185 gallons / 700 liters
- Soybeans 566 gallons / 2,145 liters
- Beef 4,069 gallons / 15,400 liters
To put those numbers in perspective, the average American family of four uses about 396 gallons or 1,500 liters of water per day.
Fishing Drains and Pollutes the Ocean Too
If you think eating more fish instead of beef makes you a greener eater, that’s not necessarily the case.
- Scientists say over 50% of fish populations are fished to their capacity while roughly 33% of fish species are overfished.
- Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, including whales and dolphins, die as a result of bycatch, or the unintended capture of these in nets used for catching fish[*].
- Oceans are littered with 700 tons of abandoned nets and fishing gear commercial boats are allowed to cast off into the deep every year, which pollutes our water and traps sea life[*].
- Huge fishing vessels require tons of fossil fuels and pollute as much planet-warming carbon dioxide each year as raising pork, pound for pound[*].
Okay, so those facts sound terrible.
Are you mad now?
Ready to make a change with your diet?
Up next you’ll find seven ways to decrease the environmental impact of your ketogenic diet and shrink your low carb footprint with the best sustainable practices.
If you don’t feel like taking the keto vegan or vegetarian route, you can be an eco-conscious keto-er too, if you:
Choose Your Meat Carefully
The first thing to remember is that where your meat comes from is also a huge part of this equation, and factory farms are the biggest culprit for poor environmental practices and impact.
Meat can be an incredibly healthy part of your diet, especially if it’s grass-fed, raised without hormones and antibiotics, and raised naturally instead of in factory farms.
In fact, there are entire diets and ways of eating that are centered around meat consumption. The adopters of these diets are remarkably healthy.
But, if you can’t commit to buying and sourcing only ethical and eco-friendly meat options, here are some more things you can do.
Watch Your Dairy
Conventional dairy products like milk and cheese may come from cows pumped full of artificial hormones and antibiotics as a result of factory life and these all mess with your health.
On the other hand, grass-fed dairy options are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid that can help promote weight loss and increase muscle strength.
But since you don’t need dairy for keto to work, you could eliminate it entirely. Unsweetened coconut, almond and cashew milk all work well as keto-safe alternatives.
Did you know the average American meal contains ingredients from five different countries?
Even domestic produce has to make its way an average of 1,500 miles before landing in your shopping cart.
All this transportation creates harmful carbon dioxide emissions, another greenhouse gas[*].
The closer to home your food comes from, the less it has to travel. And that means fewer emissions and zero chance of your food being flown on an airplane (mega emissions!).
Plus, there’s usually less wasteful plastic and packaging at your local farmer’s market than the grocery store. And it generally fits this next trait too.
When you spend the extra cash to buy organic, you’re making a safer choice for your health and the health of the planet.
Organic produce and meat means it’s free of:
- Synthetic pesticides
- Chemical fertilizers
- Hormones and antibiotics
- Bioengineered genes (GMO)
The certified organic label also says your foods are grown using farming methods including recycling and conservation which promote and save biodiversity.
Since there are several organizations certifying whether farms are following organic practices, you can check the organic labels at this website to see what they really mean and stand for.
Choose Sustainable Seafood
You may think “wild caught” is better for the environment, but it turns out locally farmed fish may be more environmentally friendly depending on where you live.
Check out the The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which helps consumers make choices for a healthy ocean, so you know exactly which fish are least endangered and which are likely to be farmed sustainably.
And don’t forget to look for the Marine Stewardship Council label, which guarantees that a product meets sustainability requirements.
Include More Vegetarian Meals
Estimates say if all Americans replaced just one quarter pound serving of beef with veggies a week, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions the same as taking 4–6 million cars off the road[*].
Before you roll your eyes at keto life sans meat, you can go vegetarian (or even vegan!) for just one meal or day a week and not die.
You’ll center your meal on low carb, protein-rich veggies and healthy fat sources such as:
- Coconut oil, coconut cream and coconut butter
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds (and nut and seed butters)
This vegetarian meal will inject a bit of newness and creativity in your keto menu planning. And that day will sure to give you an extra fiber boost too!
Experiment with Alternate Proteins
With the worldwide demand for sustainable protein in full swing, we live in an exciting time where you can actually purchase tasty, high-protein insects like crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms from companies like Exo Protein and Bugible.
Then there’s people like Aly Moore, who studied food policy at the Yale University of Public Health and went on to start Bugible, a website dedicated to educating people about the benefits of eating bugs and other stigmatized ingredients even though they’re nutrient-packed, sustainable, and yummy.
If you still want meat sans all the environmental damage, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have both backed Memphis Meats, a startup that grows clean meat like duck, chicken, and beef using animal cells!
Bugs and lab burgers not on your keto menu planning?
You can make it up to Mother Earth by following these next tips.
Follow these six steps to make your keto diet more eco-conscious and it will almost be as a good as biking to work every day:
#1. Reduce Your Food Waste (because it’s horrible)
You probably don’t think you waste that much food, but the USDA estimates Americans throw away close to 30–40% of all the food we produce[*].
That’s approximately $165 billion worth of food each year. For the average family, that’s up to $2,200 per household[*].
To reduce your food waste and save money:
- Make a grocery list and only buy items from it.
- Purchase only what you plan to eat or cook that day and the following day.
- Plan out your meals so you know exactly how much food you’ll have at all times.
- Never cook or buy more food until you finish your leftovers.
#2. Bring Your Own Reusable Bags to the Store
Here’s why you’ll never want to use another plastic bag again[*]:
- The US creates 100 billion new plastic bags every year on its own, which costs 12 million barrels of oil to produce. The energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car for one mile.
- A trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually, which if laid end-to-end, could circle the equator 1,330 times. That’s nearly 2 million plastic bags used every minute, or one per person per day.
- Only 1% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.
- Plastic bags aren’t biodegradable, which means they never break down and disappear whether they’re on the side of the road, in the ocean or in a landfill. They contribute to pollution and animals and wildlife choke on them.
Here’s what’s even worse: when plastic bags are exposed to light like sunshine, they degrade and release harmful polymer particles into our air and ocean[*].
And don’t think you’re off the hook if you get paper bags at the store.
Though they at least biodegrade, it takes cutting down 14 million trees — and a production process that takes more energy than making plastic bags — for that trade off.
So bring your own reusable shopping totes to the store and stop feeding into this madness.
#3. Avoid Packaged Goods Too
Packing not only costs energy to make, it inevitably winds up in a landfill somewhere contributing to pollution. The EPA discovered over 20% of neighborhood waste comes from packaged food materials[*].
And according to The University of California Berkeley, just the paperboard or plastic trays from frozen TV dinners can stay in a landfill for not just decades, but centuries[*]!
Luckily, you won’t eat many things out of packages on a ketogenic diet. But you may need to scan the ingredient labels on your foods to complete this next step.
#4. Eliminate Palm Oil
Palm oil is a cheap veggie oil that, like canola oil, is currently a major health and environmental problem.
It’s responsible for extreme deforestation in Indonesia and estimates say well over 27 million acres of rainforest have been lost due to palm oil production[*].
We can’t let our rainforests go for many reasons, but particularly impactful during this time of global warming is the fact that the rainforest absorbs carbon dioxide from our environment. This lessens our effects and protects us from global warming.
Better yet, start creating some of those carbon-dioxide-absorbing plants of your own and save a trip to the farmer’s market by exercising your own green thumb.
#5. Start Your Own Organic Garden
If you have a bit of land or a community garden space, you can reduce how much you buy and waste by growing your own produce. Start with easy-to-grow herbs and lettuces before you move on to fruits and veggies from there.
#6. Vote With Your Dollar
As Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, said, “Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.”
So look for products with the Fair Trade Certified label, which gives you a way to support responsible companies, empower farmers to earn the income they deserve and protect the environment with your purchases.
Try to frequent stores with environmental policies you can stand behind.
This may take a bit of research on your end, but telltale signs of environmental responsibility include:
- A wide selection of local and organic foods, grass-fed beef and dairy products and sustainable seafood
- An emphasis on minimal packaging, or a storewide recycling program
- Energy-saving practices like LED lights and doors and light sensors on refrigerated and freezer sections
- A no plastic bags policy, or an incentive to bring reusable shopping bags
Stick to these practices and you’ll be an eco-friendly ketoer without compromising your health and weight loss goals.
Ready to Go Green and Still Lose Weight?
Even though being a meat-eater may come with a few added environmental consequences, you can reduce your own impact and help lead a greener tomorrow if you want to.
Start by following our tips to lead a more conscious keto diet until you eventually practice all seven as if they’re second nature. Work your way through our list of green tips and you’ll not only benefit your health, you’ll also reduce your environmental footprint.
And you’ll do so without having to trade in your car for a unicycle or becoming a vegan. Hooray!
Emily Hunter is a registered dietitian (RD) with a masters in nutrition communication as well as a holistic nutritionist (CNP). She is passionate about promoting diets at the intersection of optimal health for longevity, weight management, and environmental sustainability.