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Simple dietary substitutions can reduce carbon footprints and improve dietary quality across diverse segments of the US population


Changing what foods we eat could reduce environmental harms and improve human health, but sweeping dietary change is challenging. We used dietary intake data from a nationally representative sample of 7,753 US children and adults to identify simple, actionable dietary substitutions from higher- to lower-carbon foods (for example, substituting chicken for beef in mixed dishes such as burritos, but making no other changes to the diet). We simulated the potential impact of these substitutions on dietary carbon emissions and dietary quality. If all consumers who ate the high-carbon foods instead consumed a lower-carbon substitute, the total dietary carbon footprint in the United States would be reduced by more than 35%. Moreover, if adopted, these substitutions would improve consumers’ overall dietary quality by 4–10%, with benefits projected for all age, gender, and racial and ethnic groups. These results suggest that a ‘small changes’ approach could be a valuable starting point for addressing diet’s impact on climate and health.

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Fig. 1: Changes in personal dietary carbon footprint after protein, mixed-dish, milk and dairy, and beverage substitutions, by demographic group.
Fig. 2: Changes in dietary quality after protein, mixed-dish, milk and dairy, and beverage substitutions, by demographic group.

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Data availability

This study used data from the NHANES and dataFRIENDS. NHANES data are publicly available from the Centers for Disease Control website ( DataFIELD is available at, and dataFRIENDS is available at

Code availability

All code is available at


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This research was supported by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (K01 HL158608; A.H.G.).

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Authors and Affiliations



A.H.G. and D.R. designed the study with input from E.B.R. and T.N.R. C.J.Y.L. prepared the data and conducted the analyses with supervision from A.H.G. All authors discussed the methods and contributed to the interpretation of the results. A.H.G. drafted the paper and C.J.Y.L, E.B.R., T.N.R. and D.R. provided critical input on the draft.

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Correspondence to Anna H. Grummon.

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Competing interests

T.N.R. receives research grant support from the National Institutes of Health and the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute for nutrition- and health-related research and served as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of WW International, Inc. until December 2022. D.R. currently receives grant support from the DHHS Health Resources and Services Administration and from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. He has received grants in the past for his diet-sustainability research from Wellcome Trust, the National Cancer Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity. The other authors declare no competing interests.

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Grummon, A.H., Lee, C.J.Y., Robinson, T.N. et al. Simple dietary substitutions can reduce carbon footprints and improve dietary quality across diverse segments of the US population. Nat Food 4, 966–977 (2023).

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