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EnvironBuzz™ Mag > Online Magazine > Food & Agriculture > What is a Sustainable Diet?
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Food is essential to life, so why is it treated as a commodity? Food is not just a resource that companies can sell to people; it is a critical part of supporting life. The issue of food insecurity is increasing globally, threatening the well-being of millions. We need global food security, but governments are pushing foods to support large agriculture industries such as meat and dairy, disregarding our needs. They are doing this through semi-regular national food guides. Though most people understand what they should and shouldn’t eat, people are expected to follow these guidelines. Because these guides tend to cater to the economy, they often lack any suggestions on how to incorporate a sustainable diet.

Western Food Guides

In the Western world, governments release new dietary guidelines every few years advising how much of each food category to eat for proper nutrition. Unfortunately, these guidelines are heavily influenced by the Department of Agriculture, which caters to the farm industry. The farm industry threatens healthy diets and sustainability by pushing large quantities of milk and meat for their financial gain. These guides suggest limiting the intake of specific nutrients, like saturated fats, rather than simply advising against eating large quantities of meat and cheese, creating confusion. Examples include:

  • USA, which focuses its messaging on varying the meats you eat and lowering the fat content of the dairy you consume but lacks information on daily servings or even suggestions for reducing meat and dairy intake.
  • Canada pushes the dairy industry on its residents so much that the Canadian Food Guide highlights chocolate milk and pudding as healthy choices.

This confusion and support for the agriculture industry have contributed to increasing non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as “obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer“.  If these trends persist, NCD deaths can be expected to make up two-thirds of global disease by 2030

Food Guides and Sustainable Diets

Not only are these guidelines confusing and detrimental to human health, but they also actively threaten the environment. Even with the active critique of these food guides, sustainability is often thrown out of the window when discussing a balanced diet. The Agriculture industry is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions creating 33% of annual global emissions. A healthy life should include a healthy place to live as well as food that is able to be sustained for a long period of time; not whatever dietary guidelines the government decides are nutritious that year. 

Only a handful of countries have included sustainability in their national food guide. Some of these countries include Italy, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, Qatar, and, more recently, the United Kingdom. These countries mainly emphasize the importance of limiting the consumption of animal products, with some even suggesting walking or biking as a healthy and sustainable mode of transportation. Though these countries may highlight sustainability, many still lack depth on sourcing sustainable food options as there is a lack of understanding of sustainable practices in the food industry and agriculture. Unfortunately, there is not one global definition of what makes a diet sustainable as it is pertinent to specific countries and regions.

Sustainable Diets in Agriculture

When evaluating how agriculture can provide a nutritious diet, understanding how a healthy diet can contribute to agriculture is imperative. Animals are an essential part of sustainable agricultural systems and so having everyone go vegan is not necessarily the most sustainable option. Many food crops that require protective crops are only nutritious to meat-producing animals. These crops often have invaluable roles in the food system by helping reduce “soil erosion, [disrupt] pest cycles, [improve] soil quality, and (in the case of legumes) [increase] soil fertility when they are present in crop rotations.” There are also accounts of fish farming contributing nutrients to organic produce in vertical farm systems. Animal products are often part of a sustainable and healthy food system as well as a sustainable diet when consumed in moderation in regions that will allow it. Implications arise when animal products are consumed excessively, such as current consumption rates in the western world. It has been found that reducing one’s meat intake to only twice a week can cut one’s Carbon Footprint in half as well as provide similar results in Ecological Footprint reductions.

Other implications include regions that cannot support animal rearing for consumption. Calculations of global food supply capacities concluded that some areas, such as East Asia and South Asia, cannot offer much more than a vegetarian diet while maintaining food security, let alone sustainability. A nutritious diet that is too space and resource intensive is not a diet that will aid food security or a sustainable food system. Creating a healthy diet that incorporates sustainability will be the one to create food security in a region. 

Double Pyramid – A Sustainable Diet?

Though there is not one be-all-end-all food guide that will work on a global scale, the Double Pyramid is a good base for understanding a nutritious and sustainable diet.

Double Food Pyramid

The Double Food Pyramid by the Barilla Centre features two pyramids. The first pyramid outlines nutritious food and the foods that should be dominating your plate, such as fruits and vegetables, versus foods that should be eaten in moderation, such as sweets and red meat. The second pyramid highlights the environmental impact of foods such as fruit with a low impact versus red meat with a high impact. The environmental impact of foods is calculated by the Carbon Footprint, Ecological Footprint, and Water Footprint of each food. Though there is a large overlap between the two pyramids, there are some discrepancies, such as how eggs have a lower suggested intake but a lower environmental impact which may suggest eggs as a reasonable option for animal-based proteins when a protein is needed.

Though one food guide should not determine your entire diet, some have reasonable suggestions. Even with this, humans mostly understand what they should eat: fewer sweets and meat and more fruits and vegetables, but sustainability may be an entirely new realm for many. Research various food guides that are accessible and affordable to you wherever you are, and look into some local produce or butchers to lower your footprint.

References

Azzini, E., Maiani, G., Turrini, A., Intorre, F., Lo Feudo, G., Capone, R., Bottalico, F., El Bilali, H., & Polito, A. (2018). The health‐nutrition dimension: A methodological approach to assess the nutritional sustainability of typical agro‐food products and the mediterranean diet. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 98(10), 3684-3705. https://doi.org/10.1002/jsfa.8877

Belluz, J. (2016, May 19). The best and Worst Nutritional Advice from around the world. Vox. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/2015/12/15/10220358/food-guidelines-around-the-world   

Peters, C. J., Fick, G. W., & Wilkins, J. L. (2003). Cultivating better nutrition: Can the food pyramid help translate dietary recommendations into agricultural goals? Agronomy Journal, 95(6), 1424-1431. https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2003.1424

Poli, A. (2010). The Food Pyramid and the Environmental Pyramid. Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. Retrieved from https://www.fao.org/ag/humannutrition/25396-02b25569cfe3b55b6da39c3dacc6a26.pdf

Ruini, L., Ciati, R., Marchelli, L., Rapetti, V., Pratesi, C. A., Redavid, E., & Vannuzzi, E. (2016). Using an infographic tool to promote healthier and more sustainable food consumption: The double pyramid model by barilla center for food and nutrition. Agriculture and Agricultural Science Procedia, 8, 482-488. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aaspro.2016.02.049 

About Post Author

Sarah Lawless

Sarah graduated from Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) in 2022. She holds an Honours Bachelors degree in Environment and Urban Sustainability with a minor in Geographic Analysis. With a professional background in urban sustainability, Sarah is passionate about education, food security, and green development and aspires to use and share her knowledge to help cities become more accessible and sustainable.
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