What Does Sustainable Nutrition Mean Today?

May 26, 2015

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear concerns voiced in the nutrition community about global population growth, which is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, and how we will feed the world while protecting the environment and our natural resources. These concerns are not new, but are front and center for health and wellness professionals who are trying to make sense of disparate lines of research attempting to link eating patterns, environmental sustainability and economics as well as come to conclusions about what constitutes a “sustainable diet.” We are being asked to explain these issues to people, who increasingly want to know where their food comes from, how it is made and its impact on the environment.

However, in our zeal to understand sustainable food systems and provide guidance for our clients, we need to be careful not to get ahead of the science and propose simplistic solutions that may be well-intentioned, but ignore complex inter-relationships.

For example, consider the complex nature of the definition of sustainable diets by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): “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.” Identifying new patterns of eating that balance all these factors will take wisdom and new ways of thinking about how to blend research findings from a wide range of disciplines, including agriculture, nutrition and health, animal science, environmental sciences, social sciences and economics.

Decades of nutrition science provide the foundation for current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but scientific research on sustainable food systems is only just emerging. Future guidelines on sustainable diets need to have a strong scientific foundation. That was the main message of a recent review, published in Advances in Nutrition. The paper illustrates this point by using the impact of foods on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) as an example. Although the carbon footprint of food has been widely discussed among health professional and environmental groups, only two studies of dietary impacts on GHGe covered the entire lifecycle, farm to store. So there’s still much work to be done.

“Future guidelines on sustainable diets need to have a strong scientific foundation.”

In addition, when thinking about what sustainable nutrition means, the nutritional quality of an eating pattern is of primary importance. All food has an environmental impact that should be weighed against its role in providing nutritional and health benefits. If we are only interested in foods associated with the lowest environmental impact, for example, we might recommend people eat higher amounts of sweets! However, in an attempt to balance acceptability, nutrition and the environment, modeling research conducted in the U.K. found that good tasting meal plans can be designed to have a 36 percent lower GHGe footprint without eliminating meat and dairy foods. A modelling study conducted in France, Spain and Sweden had similar results.

As conscientious health and wellness professionals, we want our recommendations to be science-based – as well as culturally acceptable, accessible, affordable, nutritionally adequate and safe for the people we counsel. But you don’t want to sit on your hands while you wait for more research, and neither do I. You want to know what you can do now to contribute to a sustainable food system, and help your clients do the same.

So in my future posts, I will focus on how you can use some of the things you are already doing, such as educating your clients about portion size and reducing food waste, to help create a more sustainable future.

Follow me here and @JeanRagalieRD, and let’s continue the conversation.


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