Is a sustainable diet a healthy diet?

There’s plenty of literature out there about healthy eating and what a healthy diet looks like, however there’s much less about sustainable diets (i.e. what’s the best diet for the planet).

Studies on the former are starting to be done (especially in Europe), and researchers are beginning to explore the connection between a healthy diet for the planet and a healthy diet for humans. Are they the same thing? Is there overlap? Thankfully the answer is showing to be yes.

The European Union Public Health Association’s Food and Nutrition working group conducted a systematic review of existing research and put out a report entitled “Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries”. Below I’ve provided some key points from their report. A few of the specific policy recommendations would need to be tailored to be successful in the United States and other geographic locations, however the core findings of their report can be applied anywhere.

What is a sustainable diet? How is it defined?

FAO defines sustainable diets as “…those diets with low environmental impacts, which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” (Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

What does a sustainable diet consist of?

The group found the “Key issues necessary to improve the quality of diets and to reduce damaging environmental impacts are increasing the consumption of more plant-based diets, including more vegetables, pulses, fruits and whole-grain cereals, as well as decreasing the consumption of animal-origin foods (i.e. red meat and processed meat), in particular when not coming from sustainable sources (e.g. over-exploited fish species), and avoiding foods and beverages containing trans fats, or with high content of saturated fats, added sugar or salt.” (Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

Sustainable Diet Chart.png
(Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

Generally consuming less meat and more plant-based sources of protein leads to a more sustainable diet, however there are exceptions. If you consume legumes and pulses that are not in season or grown locally, the negative impact of your diet increases. The same is true is you consume highly processed plant proteins (instead of in their whole form). (Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

Below is The Double Pyramid Model from the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition Foundation as another example of the connection between healthy planet and healthy human diets. The model is based on “the principle that the foods recommended to be consumed most frequently (such as vegetables, grains, pulses, and fruit) are also those which have less environmental impact, and conversely, the foods that should be consumed less frequently (meat and highly processed foods) have a higher environmental impact.” (Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

Double Pyramid.png
(Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

What conclusions did the working group come to?

The group found that “Sustainable diets are nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy, while having low environmental impact. They are also culturally acceptable, accessible, equitable, economically fair and affordable, contributing to food and nutrition security and to healthy lifestyles for present and future generations.

To consume a sustainable healthy diet, plant-based diets should be promoted. Individuals and societies should produce and consume both increased quantities and more varieties of fruit, vegetables, pulses, and whole-grain cereals. Attention should be paid to the place and type of production (e.g. was there excessive irrigation during production?), and seasonal foods should be preferred. Meat production and consumption should be minimised (for example, by decreasing frequency and portion size).

In particular, red meat and processed meat products should be avoided. In addition, only limited quantities of other animal-origin foods should be consumed; plant-based proteins should be preferred. When consuming fish, informed decisions should be made in regard to the sources of fish: sustainable sources of fish should always be preferred. In addition, preserved fish and fish sauces high in salt content should be avoided, as should foods containing added sugar and salt (i.e. juices containing added sugars, cereals with added sugar and salt). Foods containing trans fats, or with high content of saturated fats, should also be avoided.” (Healthy and Sustainable Diets for European Countries)

My former Tulane advisor, Dr. Diego Rose, has started research in this area. He recently presented his research with Dr. Martin Heller, which can be found here. It’s definitely worth a read/listen.


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