According to a new study, you don't have to switch over to a plant-based diet to be more sustainable. By swapping out one food item, you can make a significant impact on your carbon footprint. The researchers conducting this study wrote that Americans who eat beef could cut their diets' carbon footprint by as much as 48% by replacing one food serving per day with a more eco-friendly alternative.

In a survey of 17,000 Americans, 20% of respondents reported eating at least one serving of beef per day. Beef alone accounts for 40% of environmental impact among other foods, according to Diego Rose, Ph.D., MPH, who is the lead author of the study as well as a professor of nutrition and food security at Tulane University.

"If there was a way to get the high carbon footprint intakes down to the median, we could actually make significant savings in the overall carbon footprint of the U.S. diets," Rose says.

According to the World Resources Institute, beef uses more land and freshwater and generates more emissions than any other common food item. When cows digest their food, they release methane, which is a harmful greenhouse gas. Chickens also release small amounts of methane, but not on the same scale as cows.

There are some cattle farmers that are creating high-fiber diets for their cows so they can cut down methane emissions, and others are using regenerative farming practices to reduce the impact of beef production on the land.

Rose says that sustainable swaps are essential despite these constant efforts.

"The volume of consumption of beef in this country is so great that we can't produce enough beef sustainably to meet that level of consumption. So somewhere along the way, we're going to need to cut back on it," he said.

Robin R. Roach, MPH, EdD, RDN, director of the Environmental Nutrition program at the University of Memphis, says,

"Beginning an environmental nutrition journey can be a most exciting, meaningful adventure, and adopting environmentally-responsible food practices doesn't have to mean giving up meat entirely. The plethora of suggestions for what you need to do and not do can knock you down before you get started. Don't be overwhelmed. If you decide to serve your family a plant-based meal once a month—that's an extremely important and impactful decision on many levels.”

At the end of the day, choosing plant-based alternatives for a portion of your diet makes a significant difference in terms of lowering carbon footprints.