Climate Conscious Diets: The Real Effect of Lifestyle Changes to Combat Climate Change

Mia Cooper, Grade 10, Co-Editor in Chief

Viral trends impact our lives in numerous ways; how we dress, whom we like, what we buy. This January, a new viral trend sought to change our planet. Veganuary, a British nonprofit organization that started in 2014, encourages its members to adopt vegan lifestyles for the first month of each year. This winter, Veganuary’s membership soared, with around 400,000 people across the world taking the pledge.


Veganuary’s influence resonates both individually and globally. Core to the Veganuary mission is the education of those who want to protect the environment. People who take the pledge receive emails each day about how their diet is both improving their health and combating climate change. 


The organization recognizes the difficulty of making large lifestyle changes. “We specialize in inspiring and educating people to make a significant lifestyle change, and then provide the support they need to help maintain it,” says the Veganuary mission statement. Their support includes recipes and daily tips on how to stay vegan for a month. More companies have also been releasing vegan and vegetarian produce to adapt to the wave of climate-conscious diets. Veganuary assists corporations in promoting veganism, which further helps people become acclimated to this new lifestyle. They have been widely successful, with over 600 businesses supporting Veganuary, and over 1,200 new vegan menu options introduced in 2020. The flood of vegan options at chains like Just Salad and Fresh Brothers as well as plant-based burgers in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets helps veganism seep into everyday eating habits. 


Social norms have also played a role in the spread of vegan diet trends. The effect of endorsements from celebrities has been significant. Joaquin Phoenix, Alicia Silverstone, and Paul McCartney all pledged their support for Veganuary and have used social media to promote plant-based diets to combat climate change.

The surge of climate-conscious diet awareness has not been limited to celebrities; students at HSAS have also altered their diets to combat climate change. Matan Friedgood [‘22] has not eaten meat since fifth grade. He originally made this change when his summer camp educated him on how animals were treated in the food industry. “I don’t like the idea of animals being raised to die,” said Friedgood. Though he is not vegan, he doesn’t think it implausible for someone to cut out all animal products for a month since he did the same and now has been vegetarian for five years. “If you are going to become a vegetarian,” he said, “don’t do it because of some trend, do it because you actually care.”


Many agree with Friedgood and believe that this trend will have little effect in the long term because it is only one month long. According to an article in the Guardian, “Life After Veganuary: The Ethical Guide to Eating Meat, Eggs, and Dairy,” the campaign organizers guess that about half won’t continue veganism after a month. Because American diets generally incorporate meat, eggs, and dairy, it would take remarkable amounts of dedication to cut these food groups out. It requires extra time, energy, and money. Many Americans don’t have much of these to spare.


However, if one has resources to make the switch, it could be of critical importance that they do. Veganuary was correct about one thing: a plant-based diet is a phenomenal way to combat the climate crisis. A study in the American Association for the Advancement of Science determined that even a 50% decrease in animal products would lead to a 20% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. No animal production would remove 10.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year over a 100 year period, because approximately half of all vegetated land is used for agriculture. This amount will have to increase in the coming years to accommodate the world’s growing population. Because animal products require much more land, they are automatically worse for the environment. 


Unfortunately, many nutritional experts think that Veganuary’s approach to environmentally-friendly diets does more harm than good. Going vegan without preparation may cause participants to think that it is unrealistically hard. In reality, there are smaller changes that consumers could make to their diets to make them more sustainable. Adopting a Nordic diet has many environmental benefits. Central to the Nordic diet is eating only locally-sourced foods. Air travel leaves a large carbon footprint and trucks transporting food also release a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Purchasing food from nearby farms alleviates this issue. 


Another way to help is to buy seasonal foods. Seasonal products require less energy to make and reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they do not need to be transported as far. Websites like GrowNYC detail which foods are harvested during certain months to bolster the purchase of seasonal fruits and vegetables. 

There is one food item that is the most important to give up: beef. Cows are raised on large portions of land and require even more land to be used for growing their food. Cows also contribute extreme amounts of methane to the atmosphere. Eating fewer burgers does not fully combat this problem because ground beef is made from older cows or parts of cows not otherwise used. Consuming less dairy does make a difference, as does not eating other cuts of beef, like steak.


In the end, there is always something we can do. Whether following the new trend or advocating for better solutions, we can make a difference. Though Veganuary’s idea only lasts a month, its effect lasts much longer; giving people the taste of a different lifestyle, educating people on how important their food choices are, and raising unanswered questions about how best to live sustainably in the future.