Sustainable Diets Must Be Able to Nourish People and Protect Planet

Nourishing people sustainably is a global priority.

National Dairy Council defines sustainable nutrition as the ongoing science-based pursuit for solutions that provide affordable, accessible, nutrient-rich foods that can nourish the world’s growing global population, while also protecting environmental resources. Solutions are urgently needed to ensure we can nourish as many as 10 billion people by 2050, supporting both human and planetary health as well as accounting for social and economic impacts.

Researchers have not yet defined how to provide adequate nutrition in a sustainable manner to all people. Earlier this year, a team of scientists suggested an answer. In a study known as the EAT-Lancet report that modeled “healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” they recommended a “healthy reference diet” intended to support both human and planetary health. This healthy reference diet emphasizes eating mostly plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, low to moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and eggs, and very little red meat, if any.

While the sustainability goal behind the healthy reference diet is important, the diet itself is nutritionally inadequate and does not contain enough nutrients to support the needs of many people. For example, the healthy reference diet provides about 700 mg of calcium per day, far below U.S. calcium recommendations for most children and adults, which range from 1,000 mg to 1,300 mg per day. The low amount of calcium in this diet is especially concerning, as calcium deficiency is one of the most important global nutrient deficiencies.

Part of the reason for the low calcium content of the healthy reference diet is that it recommends zero to two daily servings of dairy foods, even though the EAT-Lancet authors acknowledge that dietary guidance in the U.S. recommends three servings of milk, cheese and yogurt daily for Americans aged 9 and older to help meet calcium recommendations and support bone health.

Milk, cheese and yogurt are excellent sources of calcium, and dairy consumption is linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents. But dairy foods also contribute high-quality protein and many other essential nutrients, including vitamin A, a nutrient of global health concern, to the diet. Even in the healthy reference diet, the single daily serving of dairy foods provides 10 percent of the vitamin A, about 65 percent of the vitamin D (from fortified milk) and nearly 50 percent of the vitamin B12, in addition to about 40 percent of the calcium.

If proposed sustainable nutrition solutions do not provide enough nutrients, including from nutrient-rich foods like milk, cheese and yogurt, they will also be unsustainable. The dairy community supports and is actively engaged in building sustainable food systems and promoting healthy eating patterns that contain nutrient-dense foods to help meet nutrient needs and support human health.

If this report sparks a balanced, transparent and inclusive assessment of the science on how to feed 10 billion people in 2050, it will be an important first step.