The Best Protein Choices and Worst for Your Health and the Environment

Find the best meat and best protein choices for your health and the environment.

When it comes to your health and the environment, what are the best protein sources and which are the worst? The Environmental Working Group (EWG, ewg.org) offers a “Meat Eaters Guide,” which looks at the environmental impact of 20 conventionally-grown protein sources, including beans, dairy, produce, meat and poultry. To determine the rankings EWG evaluated the carbon impact of the food’s full “lifecycle”—including water and fertilizer used to grow crops, transportation and even the amount of food that’s wasted. Why should you care? Your personal health and the environmental impact. The biggest take away: eat less meat and avoid wasting it. Read on for the list, starting with the best protein choice and building to the worst protein choice. Download a FREE Cookbook with Healthy Vegetarian Recipes!


Lentils

1. Lentils: Eat These Often

The most climate-friendly protein. EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors love lentils because they deliver fiber and nutrients, such as iron and folate.

Recipes to Try: Lentil Soup & More Easy Lentil Recipes »


Tomatoes

2. Tomatoes: Eat These Often

Eating more fruits and vegetables can help ward off disease. They’re low in fat and calories and give you fiber and important micronutrients. But, EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors note, they don’t provide much protein (1 gram per tomato), so also make sure to include higher protein sources in your diet.

Recipes to Try: Easy Recipes for Ripe Tomatoes »


Milk

3. Milk: Drink This Often

Choose organic and/or milk from grass-fed cows. EatingWell editors recommend choosing nonfat or low-fat (1%) milk. Buying local milk will have a lower carbon footprint, too. Look for milk that is rBGH-free (growth hormone).

More Information About Milk: Milk Buyer's Guide »


Beans

4. Beans: Eat These Often

Beans deliver protein, fiber and nutrients. Opt for dry beans, when you can, for the lowest carbon footprint.

Recipes to Try: Delicious Healthy Black Bean Recipes »


Tofu

5. Tofu: Eat These Often

Excellent source of plant protein. Keep in mind that if the label doesn't say USDA Certified Organic or non-GMO, there is a good chance it was made from genetically-modified soybeans.

Recipes to Try: Quick Tofu Dinners »


Broccoli

6. Broccoli: Eat This Often

Broccoli gives you only 2 grams of protein per cup, so while it is a low-carbon food (and great for your health), the EatingWell Nutrition Editors note that you’ll need to include higher-protein sources in your diet.

Recipes to Try: Easy Broccoli Recipes »


Yogurt

7. Yogurt: Eat This Often

Choose organic and low-fat or nonfat yogurt when possible.

Recipes to Try: Calcium-Rich Recipes with Yogurt »


Nuts

8. Nuts: Eat These Often

High in protein and healthy monounsaturated fats.

Recipes to Try: Healthy Spiced Nut Recipes »


Peanut Butter

9. Peanut Butter: Eat This Often

EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend looking for natural peanut butter to avoid extra sugar and partially hydrogenated oils.

Recipes to Try: Easy Peanut Butter Recipes »


Rice

10. Rice: Eat This Often

The EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend choosing brown rice since it is less processed than white, retaining the fiber and other nutrients. Whole grains, such as quinoa or millet are also good choices.

How to Cook Rice: Whole Grain Cooking Guide »


Potatoes

11. Potatoes: Eat These Often

Buy organic when possible, since conventionally grown potatoes tend to be high in pesticide residues (they’re on the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list of produce most contaminated with pesticides.)

Must-Read: The "Dirty" Dozen: 12 Foods You Should Buy Organic »


Eggs

12. Eggs: Eat These Occasionally

For the lowest environmental impact, pick organic and/or pasture-raised. Look for certified humane.

Must-Read: Egg Buyer's Guide »


Tuna

13. Tuna: Eat These Occasionally

Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors choose light tuna to reduce mercury exposure.

Must Read: How to Buy Canned Tuna »


Chicken

14. Chicken: Eat This Occasionally

Best meat pick. EatingWell’s Nutrition Editors recommend that you cook it skinless to minimize saturated fat intake. Opt for organic, pasture-raised or antibiotic free for the lowest environmental impact.

Must Read: How to Buy a Better Chicken »


Turkey

Pictured Recipe: Herb-Roasted Turkey

15. Turkey: Eat These Occasionally

Poultry has the lowest carbon footprint of any meat, and turkey is a good choice. Opt for organic or antibiotic-free, but avoid less healthy processed forms (cold cuts, sausage, etc.).

Get the Recipe: Herb-Roasted Turkey
Recipes to Try: 5-Ingredient Turkey Recipes »


16. Salmon: Eat These Occasionally

Choose wild salmon over farmed, when possible for the lowest carbon footprint. EatingWell’s nutrition editors note that salmon adds healthy omega-3s to your diet, so eat it and other fatty fish a few times a week.

Must-Read: The Wild Salmon Debate »


Pork

17. Pork: Eat This Less

Choose pasture-raised, certified humane, when possible. For your health and the environment, skip processed pork, like bacon.

Must-Read: Green Choices: Buyer's Guide for Meat »


Cheese

18. Cheese: Eat This Less

Stick to a single serving (1.5 ounces for hard cheese)—plus using a sharply flavored cheese can help you get the maximum impact for less. The EWG also recommends choosing organic and low-fat cheese, when possible. EWG lists cheese as the 3rd worst protein choice in part because they looked at 4 ounces of cheese—that’s almost three 1.5-ounce servings! EatingWell’s nutirtion editors suggest that when you eat cheese stick to one serving to do your part for the planet, and your health. Opt for part-skim mozzarella and low-fat cottage cheese.

Recipes to Try: Easy, Cheesy Recipes »


Beef

19. Beef: Eat This Less

Look for grass-fed and organic. While pricier than conventional, it’s a healthier choice for you and the environment. Grass-fed beef is richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Plus, organic, grass-fed cattle are raised in a way that minimizes the carbon emissions from manure. The EWG also recommends avoiding processed beef products, such as sausage, since more processing means a bigger carbon footprint and the processed products are less healthy than beef.

Recipes to Try: Juicy Beef Recipes »


20. Lamb: Eat This Less

The EWG ranked lamb as the worst choice based on carbon footprint and recommends choosing grass-fed, when possible. Since it’s not widely eaten in the United States, it plays a smaller role in carbon impact than beef, however.

Get the Recipe: Roast Leg of Lamb, Cauliflower & Shallots »