Americans’ love of junk food is surprisingly good for the environment

Bigger waistline, smaller footprint?
Bigger waistline, smaller footprint?
Image: Reuters/David Bebber
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It’s hardly surprising that the country that pioneered the McGangBang is facing an obesity epidemic. But the fondness for fat and sugar that’s making more and more Americans sick has a strange upside: It creates fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) than a healthy diet does.

In fact, if the average American were swap his current diet for the menu recommended by the USDA, the country would produce 12% more greenhouse gases than it does now, according to a new study from scientists at the University of Michigan.

The USDA wants Americans to eat one-fifth fewer calories, too. If Americans did that—keeping their current diet, but eating a fifth less—they would slash GHG emissions by 20%. However, cutting back calories while also adopting the USDA’s healthier diet would see a 1% reduction, at most.

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One reason this might seem strange is that meat contributes disproportionately high rates of GHG emissions. Beef, for instance, generates 36% of the US’s diet-related emissions, it accounts for only 4% of the food supply, by weight. And cutting back on meat-eating is one of the USDA’s bigger recommendations.

However, the USDA’s diet would also require less solid fat and sugar too—and those require relatively few GHG emissions per calorie to produce. Another offsetting factor would come from the doubling of dairy—another big GHG-producer—that the USDA endorses.

So does this mean we should eat more Ho-Hos to prevent climate change? Not necessarily. For one, things look different if you cut out meat altogether:

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And these findings only go for greenhouse gases. Skipping meat is much better for the environment if you look at carbon emissions alone (and not greenhouse gases in aggregate). For instance, the study notes that the carbon footprint of a 2,000-calorie vegetarian diet is 30% smaller than the typical American diet.

Despite those findings, the study points to more pragmatic ways of slashing GHG emissions than everyone turning vegan. Simply eating fewer calories would require less food to be produced in the first place. Fixing America’s excessive food waste problem is another biggie. The amount of GHG emissions given off by food gone to waste in restaurants, stores, and refrigerators is equal to what 33 million cars spew into the atmosphere in an entire year.