cleantech insights

The Weight Watchers Approach to More Sustainable Eating (i.e., manage what you measure)

Dan Saccardi

I recently concluded a yearlong experiment to track what I ate on a daily basis, not to count calories but to measure, and manage, my environmental impact.

As a sustainability consultant, I’ve counseled clients that “you can only manage what you measure.” But I’ve not as rigorously applied this adage to my personal life. So, to borrow another, I decided to practice what I preached.

I’ll get to the data shortly—no consulting effort is complete without a graph or two. But beyond the statistics, I gleaned the following insights from this endeavor.

First, the simple process of recording* my lunch and dinners (despite it being the most important meal of the day, I don’t typically eat breakfast and didn’t want to pad the stats with the occasional “vegetarian meal” of a banana) sparked conscious deliberation over literally every meal choice I made. Such deliberateness brought back front and center considerations that have become, with the rise of commercial-scale food production, so far removed from the dining process generally, and my dining experience in particular.

Second, I quickly became hooked on seeing my stats tick up (or down). This competitiveness did what guilt and intellectual awareness couldn’t—an awareness dating back to my failed attempt as a twelve year old at being a vegetarian. In keeping with a key tenet of gamification, around day 100, I added 50-day increments to the gross tracking so that I had discrete periods against which to compare progress, creating, as the data illustrate, a virtuous cycle.

I never set any goals (e.g., getting to x percent vegetarian by y date). But, as the charts below indicate, I changed my eating habits significantly, most notably by increasing from one-third to three-quarters of all meals being vegetarian. Without explicitly deciding this, it was quickly apparent that the goal was for the next 50-day increment to outperform the previous one.

Finally, flexibility can overcome stubbornness. Intellectually, I’m fully aware that there are plenty of reasons to be a vegetarian. But I have a hard time giving up pulled pork, baby back ribs, or my mom’s peerless lasagna. What I’ve found this approach affords those of us ambivalent about eating meat, however, is the freedom (or crutch) to still indulge on such carnivorous splendors while driving down the overall instances of doing so. Perhaps something akin to the Weight Watchers approach to reducing one’s food-related environmental impact.

So to the numbers! It’s worth noting that the following results would have been even more dramatic had I not been less rigorously considering these matters leading up to this experiment. Chicken takes the greatest hit by far among the meats because I had already begun the shift away from beef and pork to chicken before “day 1.”

Overall Trends


Beef, Pork, Seafood, and Sustainable Seafood trends


For the record, though the data represent the first year, I’m on day 405 and going strong!

*Meals were noted no more granularly than: vegetarian, poultry, beef, “sustainable” beef, pork, “sustainable” pork, seafood, and sustainable seafood. There wasn’t a rigorous framework for defining sustainable beef or pork. If a restaurant or packaging had clear description of the animal rearing practices (e.g., local, free range, grass fed, etc.) I counted it, if not, I didn’t. And given that they represent a negligible percent, I didn’t worry too much about it. For sustainable seafood, I used the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide (and great smartphone app).

Dan Saccardi is a Principal with GreenOrder. GreenOrder, a strategy and management consulting firm for environmental innovation, has recently merged with the Cleantech Group.

To get this and other Cleantech Insights stories delivered weekly to your inbox, sign up for the Inside Cleantech Newsletter:



You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or create a trackback from your own site.

  • Brian Pearson

    I only allow myself to have a six-inch heated Subway sandwich that has lean chopped beef, shredded cheese, black olives and Ranch dressing. In the evenings, my wife makes smoothies out of all kinds of vegetables and fruits. She uses what is called a “Bullet” to create that smoothie.