Food Policy

America's Junk Food Diet Might Be Better For the Environment than USDA Recommendations

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If you truly love the planet, then keep eating those potato chips—and ignoring the government's diet recommendations.

A new study finds that if Americans switched to the food types recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) diet recommendations, greenhouse gas emissions would actually increase by 12 percent. 

That's if Americans kept eating at their current calorie levels. Cutting back on calories while changing diet could produce a small decline in emissions—about 1 percent. That's fairly modest, and it would require a huge shift in eating patterns. 

Like a lot of studies look at the environmental impact of food choices, the research, which was first published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, notes the outsize environmental impact of meat. It takes a lot of energy to produce and ship beef, in particular, which accounts for 4 percent of the food supply but 36 percent of emissions that stem from dietary choices.

Cutting back on beef consumption, as the USDA recommends, would reduce emissions (although it wouldn't have much impact on carbon alone). But as Gwynn Guilford points out in an item on the study at online business magazine Quartz, a switch to more USDA friendly food choices would also entail reducing emissions-light food types like fat and sugar, which, well, Americans eat quite a bit of. In other words, there's a trade-off. 

If this study's estimates are on target, then what it ultimately suggests is that, barring punitive measures to widely discourage eating certain types of foods, it could be quite hard to achieve meaningful emissions reduction from dietary changes. The 1 percent reduction only arrives when most Americans totally revamp their food choices and significantly reduce their caloric intake, which would be a pretty tall order. And it also hints at the ways that government food guidelines can have unintended consequences. Follow them at your peril, or the planet's.