Thursday, April 14, 2011

The environmental impact of low carb eating

We often read about how costly meat production is for the environment, and this is an issue which needs to be taken into consideration when discussing how we need to be eating as a society.

In our family, we have been trying to source most of our food locally for some time.  I'm not convinced our low carb eating is necessarily that bad in terms of its environmental impact.

In fact, in spite of us eating more meat, it might be that our diet is, on balance, somewhat better for the environment than the Standard American Diet.

Let's start by summarizing the main components of our diet:  meat (mainly beef), eggs, dairy products and vegetables, some seasonal fruits.  Admittedly we also use condiments and spices that might come from far away, but they are used fairly sparingly, so we can ignore them for the purposes of this discussion.  I also buy bulk nuts from time to time, mainly almonds, which come from California.

The great news is that we are making far fewer trips to the grocery store, since we no longer need wheat based staples like cereal, pasta and bread.  Since we don't live in a wheat growing region, we are saving significant food miles there, as well as packaging.

Sugar and tropical fruits come from far away, so we are definitely saving on those food miles.

We have raised beds about 10 feet from our kitchen door and we are active members in a local CSA.  For 9 months of the year, we take care of most of our vegetable needs ourselves.

We also get our free-range eggs from nearby.  I'm a big believer in eggs, since they are a cost-effective and sustainable way of eating high quality protein, especially when they come from free range chickens.  I really wish backyard chickens for egg production were encouraged by our local authorities, but that's an issue for another day.

Dairy products, fish and chicken are three main foods that are not locally produced in any great numbers, but our way of eating these protein foods isn't really any different than before.  It's fairly difficult to obtain local farm raised chicken at all where we live.  Even before we started eating this way, we made a decision to buy local chicken only, and since it's not that easy to get hold of, our consumption has gone down.  But that is independent of our decision to cut out grains and sugar.

Beef is something we're definitely eating more of these days.  Luckily we have some great farmers not too far away, where we are able to purchase naturally raised meat at reasonable prices in bulk quantities.   I'm not too concerned about all the inputs that go into the raising of cows, because water and grass (hay) are plentiful where we live.  And the cows' output is turned back into the earth as manure because our farmers have family farms, and not massive CAFO operations.

We never ate take-out or prepared foods very much, so all the plastic and cardboard that they are packaged in isn't really much of an issue for us.  However, I can see this would be a noticeable change for some families.

On balance, it seems to me that a low carbohydrate diet can work quite well in an environmentally responsible framework.  Where meat production is arguably less sustainable than grain-based agriculture, we more than make up for it by trucking in fewer packaged staples and sugary tropical fruits, and by sourcing a larger percentage of our diet from the area.  And we most definitely drive to the grocery store less often.


  1. My wife and I are just learning about and beginning to implement a low-carb diet. The environmental and personal economic impact are both concerns. Local sources of beef, free-range chicken, eggs, and seasonal fruits and veggies are available, but our limited budget makes them, to some degree, cost-prohibitive. It appears to me that a low-carb diet can only be environmentally-friendly AND affordable for people who have a substantial amount of time and/or money available.

  2. Hello Michael,

    Thank you for commenting. I agree that it is generally quite a bit more expensive to eat only free range sources of meat, and local foods do often cost more.

    However, I'm not convinced that low carb diets are only possible for people who have substantial amounts of time and/or money. But you have to be creative and make different decisions.

    There are also quite a lot of savings when you stop eating foods with labels, and growing some of your own vegetables does not have to be expensive or time consuming. We don't eat snack products like crackers and chips, which though individually cheap, do add quite a bit to the average grocery bill.

    I know there are some low carbers whose focus is more on protein and less on where it comes from or how it was raised. These people buy cheap cuts of meat and eggs, and it is definitely possible to save a lot of money that way. However, that's not something we do.

    We buy our meat directly from farmers in the area. Although it's a little more pricey, it's not that much more, and I find a little often goes further than with grocery store meat. Furthermore, we're eating far more of the very cheap parts of the animal that most people won't touch: liver, chicken and pigs' feet, and bones are all highly nutritious. Sometimes we even get our soup bones for free, because there is little to no consumer demand for them!

    Time-wise, I feel I'm ahead too, because it takes one trip on a weekend afternoon to fill the freezer, and I don't spend nearly as much time in the grocery stores as I used to.