Food guidelines offer opportunities to protect the planet, too

New study makes case for addressing sustainability, climate change when promoting good nutrition.

sustainable eating
A new UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) report says that what we eat can protect the planet. Image: Shutterstock

What we eat matters not just for our health, but for the planet, too. Yet only a handful of pioneering governments have issued guidelines promoting “win-win” diets that can help tackle two of the most urgent challenges of our time: securing good nutrition for all and addressing climate change.

This is a key conclusion from a new study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) at the University of Oxford published today.

The “Plates, Pyramids, Planet” report evaluates government-issued food guidelines from across the globe, looking in particular at whether they make links to environmental sustainability in addition to promoting good eating habits.

At the time the study was conducted, only four countries’ recommendations – Brazil, Germany, Sweden and Qatar – drew connections to the threats posed by modern food production systems and the dietary patterns that drive them. Two more – the Netherlands and the United Kingdom- have since taken steps to incorporate environmental considerations into their food guidelines. 

But the low number of countries overall signals a real missed opportunity for many countries to promote diets and food systems that are not only healthy but sustainable, the study argues.

Specifically SDG 2 makes a clear link between the needs for healthy nutrition and sustainable agriculture — and it’s time that dietary guidelines reflect that relationship.

Anna Lartey, Director, UN FAO Nutrition and Food Systems Division

A win-win for health and environment

Poor dietary habits, rich in meat and foods that are high in sugar and fat and low in whole grains, fruits and vegetables have been closely linked to noncommunicable diseases —a leading cause of premature death, not only in high-income countries but also many parts of the developing world. These diets are typically not only unhealthy, but environmentally unsustainable.

“Growing numbers of people now understand that diets rich in whole-grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables — with reduced consumption of meat  and smaller quantities of high-fat and high-sugar foods — are good for our bodies. There is also ample evidence showing that such diets have much lower environmental impacts than the unhealthy and unsustainable eating patterns that are increasingly prevalent today,” explains lead author Carlos Gonzales-Fischer of FCRN. “So by eating well for our own personal health, we’re also doing right by the planet – in essence, it’s a win-win.”

“Between the new Sustainable Development Goals –the SDGs — and the Paris climate agreement, the international community is making a clear push to position sustainability at the heart of planning and decision making,” adds Anna Lartey, Director  of FAO’s Nutrition and Food Systems Division.

“Specifically SDG 2 makes a clear link between the needs for healthy nutrition and sustainable agriculture — and it’s time that dietary guidelines reflect that relationship.”

Guidelines around the world

More than 80 governments – just over a third of all countries in the world— already issue advice to their citizens in the form of food based dietary guidelines: short, science-based, practical and culturally appropriate messages that guide people on healthy eating and lifestyles. Their numbers are growing, including in low and middle income countries.

Despite these encouraging developments, however, most governments have yet to issue national dietary advice, and this lack is particularly apparent in low income countries – only five countries in Africa have such guidelines, for example.

And most existing guidelines still fail to consider the environmental impacts of dietary choices.

The four countries that do include such issues of sustainability all highlight that a largely plant-based diet has advantages for health and for the environment.

Notably, Sweden is providing more detailed advice on which plant-based foods are to be preferred, recommending for example root vegetables over salad greens. Most guidelines that include sustainability talk about the high environmental impact of meat. But the advice often lacks specificity and where maximum intake levels are given they are based only on health, rather than environmental concerns.

Brazil’s guidelines stand out for  emphasizing the social and economic aspects of sustainability, advising people to be wary of advertising, for instance, and to avoid ultra-processed foods that are not only bad for health but are seen to undermine traditional food cultures.

From guidelines to policies

The study emphasises that, to have a real effect on food consumption, dietary guidelines need to have clear links to food policies that are actually implemented – such as school and hospital meal standards and advertising and industry regulations.

“Dietary guidelines are an essential first step — they provide a vision, at national level, of how we could and should be eating. But often the connection with practical policies on the ground is absent, or unclear,” says co-author Tara Garnett.

The report’s overarching suggestion is that countries that already have dietary guidelines should begin to consider a process of incorporating sustainability into them. “Those countries that do not already have them are in a unique position to develop integrated guidelines from the outset,” Garnett explains.

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