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I grew up in northern Arkansas, working on my family’s apple orchard. My earliest memories include running around the orchard, climbing trees, and eating fresh apples.
From an early age, I had a unique glimpse into what an ideal relationship with food could look like. For me, it looked like working side-by-side with my grandfather at the farmers market, chatting with folks who were buying their groceries, and helping them pick the perfect type of apple for their pie or their kid’s sack lunch.
My dad, a professor who specialized in researching sustainable and organic crop development, let me follow him around on his research farm, picking berries, weighing root balls, and falling more in love with how food is a meaningful way to engage with climate action. At age 17, I swore off meat and became a vegetarian (though the idea of swearing off nachos permanently was too scary.)
That relationship with food soured as I grew older. My body changed in ways I wasn’t comfortable with, and a bent towards perfectionism in college manifested in anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder (ED). ED’s can manifest differently for everyone, and mine was much more associated with a drive to be seen as the “perfect” student. I overcommitted myself academically, signing up for more classes and extra credits than I had any business saying yes to, which led to me feeling overdrawn and overwhelmed.
I coped with that feeling of overwhelm, and of not being enough, by restricting food, using exercise as a way of avoiding negative feelings (exercise bulimia) and setting strict boundaries around the perceived healthiness and purity of certain foods (what I would later come to understand as orthorexia). Rather than athletic performance, my restriction was driven by anxiety around my academic achievement.
In my experience, ED’s have a way of sinking their teeth into whatever you’re most vulnerable about.
Food, which had once been a nourishing point of connection, became a source of anxiety and fear. I started telling people I was vegan as a way of worming out of scenarios where I might have to eat with other people, or eat something I didn’t think was “healthy” enough. I avoided whole food groups like dairy or anything I thought was too processed. But this fear was based so much more on a perception of myself than any reality of how healthy that food actually was.
While there are perfectly good reasons to omit foods from your diet, I skipped them out of fear. What originally was an empowering dietary choice to eschew animal products got twisted up in mental illness and distorted by my inability to reconcile the two. My days were dominated by rules I set for myself around food that made connection a challenge, and healthy functioning on a day-to-day basis nearly impossible.
Thankfully, I had a dear friend who convinced (read: forced) me to get help. He dragged me to our college’s counseling office, and sat with me while I waited for my first appointment. After years of hard work, therapy, and support from loved ones, I identify as proudly in recovery. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully recovered, but letting go of an idealized process or endpoint has been really healing for me.
I still eat in a way that aligns with my environmental values, but I no longer resonate with any particular “diet” or stick to hard and fast rules. Rigid rules and labels don’t work for my brain, which is all too likely to fall into traps of perfectionism or black and white thinking. If you let yourself have ranch dressing this one time, what’s next? An entire cow? Why don’t you go ahead and eat a baby polar bear while you’re at it? Scared that one little slip up meant I was good and fully compromised, I did whatever I could to avoid “little slip-ups,” and a lot of the time, that meant restricting.
But I do strive to live out my love for the planet and people in the nutrition choices I make, even if that means not adhering to strict guidelines.
What You Eat—and What You Don’t Eat—Matters
Think about everything you’ve eaten today. The almond milk you poured over your cereal. The blueberries you mixed into your yogurt. The arugula you plucked for your salmon, even the chocolate bar you had for dessert.
Now, think about what it took to get each of those products from whatever field or stream they came from, and into your mouth.
Where were they grown? How were they raised? How were they harvested, transported, stored, shipped, washed, displayed, hydrated, and purchased? What kind of soil did they grow in? What kind of water did it live in? Who picked, caught, or harvested it? When were they picked, where, and by whom?
Whew. It can be overwhelming to consider the number of climate factors that contribute to even a small decision like sprinkling a few strawberries on your oat-gurt. The science behind food’s climate footprint can feel confusing, and the problem of climate change too unwieldy.
Taking just a few simple steps to alter your eating habits can have a big impact. Roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and about half of that comes from animal agriculture. Food production also taps about 70 percent of usable freshwater and occupies 40 percent of global land. And it’s not just about what you do eat, but what you don’t eat (and throw out!) as well.
Food production is the largest factor threatening species with extinction, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Nature Communications, contributing to deforestation, desertification, eutrophication (an excess of nutrients in water due to runoff), coastal damage, and degradation of reefs and marine ecosystems.
Agriculture isn’t just a driver of climate change, but also a victim of its shifting conditions as the climate grows less stable and increasingly unpredictable. As Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in his book We Are The Weather, “Changing how we eat will not be enough, on its own, to save the planet, but we cannot save the planet without changing how we eat.”
While global food systems, as they exist, may not be sustainable, there is hope. Because at least three times a day, we athletes can rethink this relationship to the planet, starting with what’s on our plate. Experts have identified two simple actions as being some of the most impactful actions individuals can take. Minimizing food waste and reducing consumption of animal products are healthy and cost-effective measures that are accessible to most runners. In many cases, the actions we most need to take are small and unsexy. Composting a bit more here, buying a bit less there, writing lists, and planning ahead.
“The good news is that a lot of things that are good for the planet are good for athletes, too,” says Kylee Van Horn, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in working with endurance athletes.
According to the World Resources Institute, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses behind China and the U.S. Another study by Project Drawdown, a multidisciplinary coalition of experts on climate-change solutions, ranks food waste reduction as the single most impactful climate action we can take. Some studies show that as much as 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions could be eliminated if food waste was brought to zero.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, upwards of 40 percent of food produced each year in the U.S. is wasted. While some food is wasted as part of agricultural processes and throughout the supply chain, consumers are actually responsible for the majority of food waste. An estimated 28 percent of the planet’s agricultural land is used to grow food that ends up in the garbage. Food waste is the single largest solid-waste component of America’s landfills—an estimated 80 billion pounds!—and emissions from it are equivalent to the greenhouse gas output of 33 million cars. This is an environmental and food justice disaster.
Even the best-intentioned among us have ordered too much at a restaurant or bought too much at the grocery store. Sometimes our athletic ambition is only rivaled by the drive in our stomachs when we’re on the hunt for post-run food, and our appetite can get ahead of us.
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“Everyone can minimize the amount of food they waste,” says Emily Olsen, trail runner and director of the Cloud City Conservation Center, an environmental and food-justice nonprofit based in Leadville, Colorado. “If you want to make a difference at the intersection of climate and social justice, just eating the food we buy is it.”
Van Horn urges runners to start by thinking about their shopping and meal planning habits. “Haphazardly making a shopping list or going to the grocery store without a plan can cause you to overbuy things like produce or even things that are not needed (i.e. repeat items that you may already have in the house).” She also recommends doing a cursory pantry and fridge check so that you’re not buying items you already have. (Anyone else have a shelf full of baking soda?)
“If you do overbuy, think about ways to prolong the life of the food you may have in excess. For instance, if you bought too much bread, put it in the freezer, or if it is going bad, make croutons out of it,” says Van Horn. “For produce, blanch, freeze, or dehydrate it to be able to use in soups or smoothies later.”
Leftovers are an economically conscious way to eat, as well as climate-friendly. Reinforce leftovers by adding rice or tofu, depending on if you need a bit more carb or protein. Turn last night’s pizza into tomorrow’s breakfast and BAM! Climate action.
The absolute last-ditch effort: compost it. Compost is a great way to reduce the amount of food waste that you send to the landfill, and it can even be used in your home garden. Find out if your community has a compost option (some communities even have subsidized or sliding scale payment options) to help divert some of your household waste. It’s fun to know that your coffee grounds, paper towels, and orange peels can go on to feed a garden and give life to something new.
Cut Down on Meat
A study at the World Resources Institute (WRI) calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a gram of edible protein of various foods. Foods like beans, fish, nuts, and eggs have the lowest impact. Poultry, pork, milk, and cheese have medium-size impacts. Far and away the biggest impacts (in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—we’re not even accounting for habitat loss, land use, or other external costs) were associated with beef, lamb, and goat.
According to the WRI, the planetary impact of Americans’ meat and dairy consumption accounts for nearly 90 percent of all the land used to produce food, and 85 percent of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions. Basically, we need a lot of land to feed and produce the meat we eat, and we are quickly running out of land to sustain livestock.
“Reducing meat consumption reduces both our carbon emissions and our agricultural footprint,” says Peter Newton, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and an accomplished trail runner. According to a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, projected global greenhouse emissions could be reduced as much as 70 percent if everyone on earth adopted a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet.
“From purely an environmental perspective (i.e., ignoring human health and animal welfare for a minute), most of the problem could be solved without anyone needing to become vegan. Rather, a dramatic reduction in meat consumption would suffice,” says Newton.
Try to make meat a treat rather than a dietary default. If living without burgers or nachos feels like too big of an ask, let yourself have them on special occasions. Enough people making a lot of imperfect decisions and committing to action will have more impact than throwing up your hands at the thought of never eating another cheesesteak.
According to a 2015 study in Frontiers in Nutrition, a diet that is vegetarian five days a week and includes meat just two days a week would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and water and land use by about 45 percent. Eating organic, grass-fed, free-range beef doesn’t let you off the hook either. Meat is still a heavy emitter, no matter how it’s raised.
Eating for Performance and Planet
Van Horn recommends that athletes interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet start small. “If you are wanting to transition to a more plant-based diet, yet you lead a busy lifestyle and are training a lot, consider transitioning to a couple of days per week that meet your plant-based expectations so you can see how well it fits,” she says. “Keep in mind that dietary changes should never feel like a burden or cause you mental stress that affects the rest of your life.”
She recommends runners who want to reduce their meat consumption start by eliminating meat at one or two meals a day, rather than going, excuse the pun, whole hog right away.
For athletes concerned about getting enough protein, Van Horn is a huge fan of lentils, which contain twice the protein of most beans per serving. “It’s all about balance,” says Van Horn. Protein recommendations for athletes range from 98 grams of protein a day for casual competitors to 176 grams for serious endurance athletes, depending on weight.
“You can still get plenty of protein while minimizing meat,” says Van Horn. Beans, while less protein-packed than lentils, still pack a punch, depending on the variety. Soybeans, split peas, and white beans are some of the highest in protein per serving.
Like any run, climate action starts with a lot of small steps. Committing to reducing food waste where you can, and cutting out red meat while reducing animal products are the most impactful climate choices an individual can make. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and a few simple adjustments can go a long way.
“Your health is linked to the health of your neighbors, your community and your planet. And that’s powerful,” says Olsen.
Saving the planet begins at breakfast. Let’s do this.
You can order a copy of Becoming a Sustainable Runner here.