Your Plate has a Footprint

Every morning, I wake up, and just moments after my feet hit the floor, I’m reaching for a sports bra and tying my shoelaces. It’s time to go running.

Sometimes, I’m alone - in rhythm with only my breath and my thoughts. Other times, I’m with a friend, sharing stories and jokes as our strides fall in step with one another. In either case, this time is sacred.

I’m a runner, and for me, there’s nothing better than a crisp morning, when the air is fresh, the sun is peaking over the horizon, and my legs are light.

But this isn’t always the case.

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For people like me, eliminating meat from my diet was easy. For other people, not so much. Some people simply like their cheeseburgers way too much. And that’s okay. Even if we don’t all become vegans today, there are steps we can take to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and eat more sustainably:

  • Participate in #MeatlessMonday Because you can do anything for one day. Learn more about the Meatless Monday movement here.

    • Some places like Whole Foods make Meatless Monday easy. Certain Whole Foods locations allow hot and salad bar customers to pile their plates as high as possible with meatless items, all for $8.

  • Have a fun, culinary adventure in your own kitchen. Try new meatless recipes. You may be surprised how healthy - and delicious - a plant-based meal can be! There are many good resources for plant-based recipes and inspiration:

    • Try Vegetarian Times for a huge database of meatless recipes.

    • Why not go all out? These vegan food blogs are full of great recipes, tips, and inspiration. Plus, food bloggers also tend to rock at photography.

    • For low-maintenance meal ideas, follow my own adventures as I take my best shot at a healthy, sustainable, and vegetarian lifestyle.

  • Opt for fish over meat or chicken. According to the same study by UK scientists, the dietary greenhouse gas emissions for meat-eaters were, on average, 50% higher than those who only ate fish and vegetables. Check seafoodwatch.org to make sure you are choosing sustainably fished seafood.

  • Purchase locally raised meat when you do indulge. Most greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock occur during food production, but transportation emissions can be cut if you focus on purchasing from local or regional farms. Every little bit counts.

Some days, when the smog is thick and my phone buzzes with an air quality warning, I know running outdoors won’t only be unpleasant; it would be unsafe. When this happens, I worry for the possibility of a day that we reach the point of no return- a day pollution holds us hostage not once or twice a summer, but every day of the year.

That doesn’t have to be the case.

Most of us would love to cut our carbon footprint in half - I know I would - but it just isn’t convenient. We want to drive in cars, fly in planes, and eat exotic fruits that only grow on the other side of the world. I’m lucky enough to live in a city with great public transportation and a wealth of eco-friendly ride-sharing options. But many Americans don’t have these choices.

Census data shows that, in all but 7 states, three-quarters of Americans drive to work alone. Well, I don’t know anyone who loves their commute, but commuting is a necessary evil. We could demand an increase in public transportation options, but that takes a lot of time, money, and - wait for it - government intervention.

So, if we can’t take millions of cars off the road, what can we do right now, on an individual level, to keep our air clean, and reduce our carbon footprint?

Well, everybody eats.

We eat to celebrate. We eat to nurture. We eat to survive.

We also eat selectively - it seems like everyone has a dietary restriction these days. Planning a dinner party with my friends is a unique challenge, and more often than not it results in a sort of potluck of new dietary options. I’ve tried a friend’s gluten-free chickpea blondies. They’ve tried my tofu arrabiata sauce. Most of these dietary choices were made for personal, health-related reasons, but what I’ve learned recently is that the food we eat doesn’t just impact us; it impacts the planet. Big time.

Just this summer, a group of researchers in the UK published a study that compared the carbon footprints associated with different diets: meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. Turns out, eliminating meat from your diet can reduce your carbon emissions by half. A vegan diet was associated with the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions - 99 percent to 102 percent less than meat-eaters - but even switching from meat and poultry to fish can slash your dietary emissions by 50 percent.

Before learning about this study, I never thought about how my diet - I’m a pescatarian; I eat a predominantly plant-based diet with the occasional seafood meal - impacted anyone but myself (and my dates when they suggested going out for barbecue or a steak dinner - awkward). I always figured that what I put into my body was a personal decision, but it turns out that it is quite the public concern.

The good news is, it’s getting easier to find healthy and delicious meatless options. Whole Foods, as well as schools across the nation, participate in Meatless Monday. Once-hated vegetables, such as brussel sprouts, are making a comeback at dinner tables and on trendy restaurant menus; Celebrity Chef José Andrés is even opening a veggie-centric fast casual joint in Washington, D.C. next year. On the Internet, countless blogs and message boards create an online community and endless ideas for meatless fare.

Every night, after washing my face and penning a quick journal entry, I climb in bed. I lay there for a moment, reflecting on the day, and, most likely, already thinking about my next meatless meal. And as I close my eyes, I hope for a crisp morning with fresh air, the sun peaking over the horizon, a lightness in my legs. As I drift into a slumber, I get excited for the next day’s run.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.