The Climatarian Diet: Good for You, Good for the Planet
You don’t have to go vegan to help reverse climate change. Here’s another way to eat sustainably and get healthy at the same time.
Epic wildfires. Flooding. Drought. We can't hear about the impacts of global warming on climate change without wondering if there's a way to help. Could it be as straightforward as changing our diets? Yes, as a matter of fact.
The way human beings eat and the health of the planet are intimately connected. In fact, 17% of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change come directly from industrial agriculture. The global food system on the whole is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. The petroleum-based inputs of factory farming, burping cows, and shuttling foods around the world on planes, trains, and automobiles are just a few ways the Western diet is catastrophically warming the globe.
In response to climate change, plenty of people have made the switch to a vegan or plant-based diet in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. I follow a plant-based diet for health reasons, but I also consider myself a climatarian because I eat as few foods as possible that are shipped long distances or packed in plastic. I think about the resources, like water, that are used to make the products I buy. And I get as much produce as possible from local farms.
But vegan and plant-based diets aren’t the only ways of eating that go easier on the earth. Today, some people follow the so-called “climatarian diet” (a mash-up of the words “climate” and “vegetarian”). For these eaters, the goal is to choose foods that can stop or reverse climate change while minimizing the foods that make the situation worse. They really think about the history of each bite, from the field to the plate, considering the overall impact it’s had on the planet.
It’s a serious way of thinking about food, but the climatarian diet is flexible and non-dogmatic. People can customize the program to fit their environmental values.
And while climatarians get into the diet for sustainability reasons, they often find the benefits of this style of eating extend to their own health as well.
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What is the climatarian diet?
The term “climatarian” goes back to 2015 when the New York Times included it as one of the new food words of the year. To follow the diet, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with what foods negatively impact the environment during their production and transportation to market.
What are foods to avoid on the climatarian diet?
Climatarians minimize foods with the biggest carbon footprint, including:
These foods are associated with greater greenhouse gas emissions and more use of water than other options.
What can you eat on the climatarian diet?
Meanwhile, climatarians load up on climate-friendly foods, including:
Mussels, clams, and oysters
The production of many of these foods actually helps pull carbon out of the atmosphere — something the planet needs a lot more of to mitigate climate change.
How is a climatarian diet different from a vegan diet?
A vegan diet eliminates animal products while a climatarian diet minimizes foods that fuel climate change. There is an awful lot of overlap between the two, but there are some key differences.
For example, responsibly farmed and wild mussels and oysters actually help clean the water they’re grown in, making them fair game in the climatarian diet. A climatarian may decide to eat a small amount of beef produced on a local or organic farm where the cows eat grass, which can, under carefully controlled circumstances, promote biodiversity and sequester carbon on grassland. These exceptions could also extend to farmstand cheese and locally produced dairy.
And there are plenty of vegan foods a climatarian would choose not to eat including almond milk (due to the enormous amount of water required to grow almonds) and palm oil (which contributes to deforestation around the world.) Climatarians will also likely pass on packaged foods that have been shipped thousands of miles and come in plastic packaging.
Another important distinction is the flexibility built into a climatarian’s diet. It’s less rigid than veganism, and it allows space for thoughtful exceptions. There are no dogmatic rules. For many people, this approach is less overwhelming and more sustainable than a vegan diet for the long haul.
What are the health benefits of a climatarian diet?
As it turns out, what is healthy for the planet is also healthy for people. When people begin making food decisions through the lens of climate change, they are likely to start seeing improvements in their health.
The MVP staples in a climatarian diet — vegetables, lentils, beans, whole grains — happen to be packed with fiber and nutrients that are associated with positive health outcomes. These include reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing your risk of heart disease and cancer. Meanwhile, foods with a bigger carbon footprint (looking at you, beef, cheese, ultra-processed snacks) are rich in saturated fat, sugar, and calories. These happen to be associated with many of the chronic diseases that are so prevalent today, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
15 delicious climatarian diet recipes
If you’re ready to start eating to protect the planet and your own health in the process, here are some recipes to get you going on a climatarian diet.
Quicker-cooking than other legumes, lentils can be a weeknight staple. Here they’re simmered with tomatoes, chilies, and plenty of spices for a complex flavor that’s surprisingly easy to create. Lentils are not only satisfying thanks to their protein and fiber, they actually improve soil quality by pulling nitrogen out of the air, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.
This is a special occasion dish that is well worth a little bit of extra fuss. It combines eggplant grilled to a smoky flavor and custardy texture with toothsome lentils. Pluck herbs from your backyard or window box herb garden to embrace the local food ethos of climatarianism. The recipe calls for creme fraiche or yogurt. If you can’t find local sustainable dairy products, you could swap in a plant-based yogurt or sour cream.
This bowl of mussels in red sauce will make you feel like you’re at your favorite Italian joint. Serve them with plenty of garlic bread to sop up the slightly spicy tomato sauce, and enjoy an ocean-friendly source of lean protein that’s rich in heart-healthy omega-3s.
Like mussels, oysters don’t require feed, making them an environmentally-friendly choice. They filter the water they’re grown in to get their nourishment, making the water cleaner as they go. This recipe celebrates their pure briny flavor. You just heat them on the grill and kiss them with a flavorful condiment.
This stew is typically made with meat but here tofu joins peanuts in the warming bowl. If you haven’t enjoyed tomatoes and peanut butter together before, you’re in for a new classic combo. Packed with spices and herbs, the dish brings bold flavors to plant-based nutrition. Soybeans (tofu’s main ingredient) and peanuts are both crops that improve soil and sequester carbon, so it’s a climate win-win. Just be sure to pick up organic tofu to avoid less eco-friendly GMO soy.
Making takeout-style food at home is great for the environment because it avoids all the plastic packaging and utensils that typically come with a bag of carryout. This one puts earth friendly tofu and broccoli at the center of the plate, making it an even bigger win for planet Earth. Best of all, it’s lighter and fresher-tasting than many standard offerings you get when you order in.
It’s tough to enjoy classic sushi when you know how polluted and overfished the oceans are. Luckily, versions made with veggies like avocado, sweet potato, and baby bok choy satisfy the craving very well. Wrapped in nori, a type of seaweed, this sushi burrito may help improve the health of the ocean. Sea vegetable farms can play a significant role in the fight against climate change by absorbing carbon and renewing ocean ecosystems.
Packed with umami, seaweed salad is one of the most flavorful bowls of greens you can whip up at home. It’s refreshing and crisp all at once. Carrots add sweetness and chili brings some heat. And wakame, the seaweed in this salad, is just as good for you as it is for the ocean. Research shows it’s rich in protein and minerals and it may even help with weight loss.
This classic vegetable dish, known to many Americans from the animated movie of the same name, may be the epitome of climatarian cuisine. It’s bursting with eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and bell pepper, which you can find in season at a farmers’ market. In this version of the recipe they’re oven-roasted rather than simmered, which makes the dish especially beautiful, too.
Salads aren’t all bird food. This recipe is filled with protein-packed chickpeas (which also happen to enrich the soil and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere) and walnuts — a good source of healthy fat. It does call for a little feta cheese (¼ cup). You decide whether you want to splurge on a sustainable, locally produced feta-style cheese or make your own tofu feta instead.
Here’s a vegan dish that’s hearty enough that you won’t miss the animal products, and fancy enough that you can serve it for a special occasion. You’ll roast cauliflower and eggplant with a spicy harissa dressing, simmer lentils with a tongue-tingling ancho chili sauce, and serve them together with a refreshing cabbage salad.
Though you often see it on breakfast and brunch menus, shakshuka also makes a satisfying and boredom-busting dinner. Instead of the usual eggs, this 30-minute version features eco-friendly chickpeas. To make the recipe even more climate-friendly, substitute fresh locally grown tomatoes for the canned ones when they’re in season.
You definitely don’t need beef, pork, or chicken to make a killer taco. This piquant dish relies on meaty mushrooms, which should always be high up on a climatarian’s list of preferred foods. They’re well seasoned with garlic and guajillo chilies for a spicy kick.
Whatever you can do to move factory-farmed meat off the plate is going to benefit the environment. Having a quick, filling recipe like this buddha bowl in your pocket will make it easier. Sweet potatoes and chickpeas provide plenty of filling fiber and great flavor. Feel free to substitute plain broccoli for the broccolini.
Whole grains are much less water-intensive than foods like meat, eggs, and cheese. Research shows it takes just half a liter of water to grow 1 calorie of grain. It takes 20 times as much — 10 liters — to produce a calorie of beef. This zesty, herb-flecked salad calls for quinoa, but you could substitute any whole grain. They’re all climatarian-approved.
More ideas for climate-friendly cooking
Reducing your meat consumption is one way to eat lighter on the planet. Another thing to consider is reducing food waste. Learn more in these next articles.