Environmental Food Sustainability For Athletes


Food is a major producer of greenhouse gases and environmental pollution. On the farming level deforestation is a major issue, as farmers clear more land to plant crops and keep animals. We are rapidly losing our forests, which are our natural carbon sinks.

The most frustrating thing for the entire planet is that even though there’s a rising demand for food, especially meat, more and more of this edible food just goes into the trash, what a waste!

Food waste occurs at every aspect of the supply chain, at the farming level, industry, supermarkets and at the consumer level. On average Aussie households throw out $661 million dollars of edible food per year! (Victoria Government, 2016)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste across the globe accounts for 4.4 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This is the third highest emitter when compared the highest polluting countries China 10.7 gigatonnes and the USA at 5.8 gigatonnes. Shameful really.

The type of diet you choose does play a major part in how much carbon emissions you are responsible for. The higher the meat and animal consumption you have, the higher your carbon footprint. That begs the question: in sports nutrition, how much are we perpetuating additional greenhouse gases by promoting high protein diets to athletes?

Athletes have the same moral responsibility as the rest of the population to eat sustainability. They are also the best role models and the most appropriate champions to push a more plant based eating culture.

By eating less diary and red meat, greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to reduce by 35%. Eating less beef can reduce land mass use by 50-70% (N.Meyer, 2016).

High protein diets are all the rage in many sports, even for weight loss treatments, but the question is do we have an ethical responsibility to save the planet for generations to come by reducing our animal consumption?

If we don’t recommend a high protein diet using high biologically available protein like diary and red meat, are we then going to sabotage athletic performance?

The first thing that comes to mind for most environmentalists is to make athletes turn vegetarian or vegan, a simple solution, right? I’m a realist, if I walked into a gym as a Sports Dietitian and told my protein shake drinking mates to turn vegan I’d be laughed out of the gym. Not everyone wants to turn vegetarian or vegan, so is there another solution we could use?

Eat less meat, eat less in general, and eat more plants

Simply by eating and buying less you have the potential to reduce your carbon footprint. Planning your meals will help reduce unnecessary food waste. Eat for your needs and maintain a health body weight. A message that has been used in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Unfortunately though it’s not followed by 65% of the population. Unfortunately, even sports people have issues with excess body fat, thanks to the obesogenic environment we live in.

Speaking about Dietary Guidelines a number of countries around the world now include a recommended reduction of red meat consumption to 500g per week. It’s a figure that has been viewed as more environmentally sustainable. Most Australians easily sit down to dinner meals consisting of 200g steaks several times a week. This isn’t surprising considering that Australia is renowned for its beef industry. So in general we eat too much red meat and too many dairy products to be environmentally sustainable.

Problem is how do we get people and athletes to accept that meat and dairy consumption is something they should reduce or give up. Most body builders believe if they don’t drink a milk derived protein shake after their workouts their muscles will drop off. It’s a serious concern if you’re worried about your gainz.

Animal protein is not the only complete protein that exists in the food chain. Take soy, hemp and pea protein for example, they are equally suitable and would decrease the use of dairy products significantly. Use this article to choose the best protein powder.

I feel it’s time we make everyone, even athletes, think about their moral responsibility to the planet. We need to get people to associate their eating patterns to climate change before its too late. In a few years we will be frying in our own dripping sauce if we don’t do anything about it.

How to create an environmentally sustainable diet

There are many ways to get enough protein to feed hungry growing muscles, and it isn’t all animal based. Muscles do not shrink up if you don’t have protein straight after your gym session either. You can also lose weight using plant-based protein.

In fact most recreational athletes, and the average Australian exceed their recommended daily intake of protein per day. This means we all should cut back for the sake of saving the planet.

Step One – Reduce Food Waste

Primarily cutting back on food waste should be your ultimate focus. Plan your meals and only buy what you need. Take an inventory of your fridge and cupboard before you buy more food. Try having an “Armageddon week” were you attempt to use up all of your leftovers in the fridge and pantry. Check out my article on Budgeting Tips for examples on healthy meals I make on my Armageddon week. You’ll save money, whilst saving the planet.

Step 2- Flip your animal protein for plant-based alternatives

For muscle growth and repair in sports its recommended that athletes consume around 20g of protein per meal and 10-20g per snack. So instead of using animal protein, why don’t you try some vegetarian dishes for a few meals?

You can get 20g of protein with the following vegetarian food serves:

250g Lentils

284g Chickpeas

306g Tempeh

284g Tofu

204g Soy

57g   Hemp seeds

If everyone in the United States ate stopped eating meat for just one day per week, it would have the same reduction in air pollution as taking 7.6 million cars off the road (K.Hamerschlag, 2011).

The truth is I’m not asking people to be vegetarian or vegan for that matter, but have you considered going meat free on Mondays? – It’s a thing, you know, you should give it a try.

Here are some more helpful ways to improve your diet to improve its sustainability scores:

Swap an animal protein for a plant protein

Dairy yogurt            > Soy yogurt
Burger beef patties > Chick pea or corn fritters
Minced meat          > Lentils
Dairy milk              > Soy milk
Whey protein         > Soy or Hemp protein
Steak                      > Tofu
Chicken breast       > Tempeh


Low carbon emission meal plan for athletes:

Breakfast Steal cut oats with soymilk, 1 scoop hemp protein powder, 10 chopped almonds and chopped strawberries
Lunch Sweet potato with tofu, handful nuts and mixed roasted vegetables
Pre-gym Soy protein shake on soymilk and whole grain crackers, avocado and hummus
Dinner Casserole made with lentils, mixed vegetables with a sauce made from crushed tomatoes on a base of basmati rice
Post-gym Soy protein shake on soymilk and 1 fruit



Hamerschlag,K. Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health; Environmental Working Group: Washington, 
DC, USA, 2011; Volume 115.

N.Meyer and A. Reguant-Closa “Eat as if you could save the planet and win!” Sustainability integration into nutrition for exercise and sport. 2016

Victoria Government website: Love Food Hate Waste. 2016








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