Single-item substitutions can substantially reduce the carbon and water scarcity footprints of US diets

Elsevier, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 115, 1 February 2022
Rose D., Willits-Smith A.M., Heller M.C.

Background: Human food systems substantially affect the environment, but the impacts vary widely by food. Guidance to individuals to reduce their dietary impacts would benefit from easy advice, but little is known about the specific population impacts of simple changes on self-selected diets. Objectives: The objective was to estimate the potential impact of a single dietary substitution on the carbon and water scarcity footprints of self-selected diets in the United States. Methods: This cross-sectional modeling study used 24-h dietary recall data from the 2005-2010 waves of the NHANES. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) in the production of foods as well as irrigated water use, characterized by its relative scarcity at production locations, were matched to all foods in the recalls using previously developed databases. Impacts were summed to create carbon and water scarcity footprints for diets (n = 16,800) of adults aged >18 y. Diet quality was assessed using the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). Foods with the highest impact on GHGE and selected additional foods were substituted for calorically equivalent, less impactful items. Footprints were calculated before and after these hypothetical substitutions. Results: The highest impact foods were all beef items, and 19.8% of individuals consumed them (n = 3320). After substitution of these items with poultry or pork, the mean carbon and water scarcity footprints among those with substitutions significantly decreased (P < 0.001) by 48.4 ± 0.6% and 29.9 ± 0.4%, respectively. Across the entire sample, these represented mean reductions of 9.6 ± 0.3% and 5.9 ± 0.2%, respectively. The mean HEI after substitutions was 3.6 ± 0.1% higher than before (P < 0.001). None of the selected additional foods had population impacts as large as the beef substitutions. Conclusions: Simple substitutions can be made in individuals' diets to substantially reduce their carbon and water scarcity footprints without sacrificing dietary quality. Such substitutions may be easier to promote than complex dietary patterns.