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How to build a sustainable diet

Sustainable diets are important for both the environment and your own health. We have worked with EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, to put together a guide on how to build your own sustainable diet. Written by Laura Elphick, EIT Food

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Sustainable diets are a growing topic of interest among many of us. With eye-opening statistics related to the impact of food production and consumption on our health and the planet, it’s hard not to pause and reflect on our own dietary habits.

But what exactly is a sustainable diet? And, how easy is it to achieve? We explore what eating sustainably really means and why it’s important for the health of the planet.

Why are sustainable diets important?

There has been lots of research to suggest that food is not being produced or consumed sustainably. And with the world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, where we’ll need to produce more food than ever before, we need to learn to do sustainably.

In terms of food production, agriculture uses almost 50% of the world’s vegetated land and generates 25% of the annual global emissions that contribute to climate change. It uses 70% of freshwater resources and both contributes to, and is affected by extreme weather events, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Not to mention the billions in single-use plastic that is used to package our food each year and the vast amount of food that is lost or wasted before it even reaches our plates.

Also, much of our food is not being produced efficiently. For example, an abundance of crops are produced each year to feed livestock animals. For every 9 calories we put into a chicken we get 1 calorie out. With estimates that we need to produce between 70%-100% more meat by 2050, we can’t continue to produce our food in this way.

Several of our food consumption habits are also unsustainable. For example, many people consume too much or too little. While 820 million people are going hungry, over 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. And it’s not just the amount of the food we eat that can be an issue, it’s also the quantities of certain foods in particular. It’s suggested that we generally eat too much meat, processed foods and foods high in salt, fat and sugar and not enough fruits, vegetables and grains.

We are also overly dependent on huge quantities of a small variety of crops. For example, we get more than 50% of our plant-based calories from just 3 crops and 75% of our total calories from just 12 crops and 5 animals. This leads to a reliance on a handful of crops and animals to sustain us, which makes us less resilient to pests and diseases in our food supply. It also stifles biodiversity as more farmland is given up to a smaller number of species. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything about our food system, it’s that it needs to become more resilient to combat future crises.

So, what exactly is a sustainable diet?

There are many different suggestions as to what a sustainable diet includes. But generally a sustainable diet considers the type food we eat, how it is grown, distributed and packaged, and the effect this has on the planet. For example, according to the FAO and WHO a sustainable diet:

  • Includes wholegrains, legumes, nuts and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Can include moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish, and small amounts of red meat
  • Minimises the use of antibiotics and hormones in food production
  • Minimises the use of plastics and derivatives in food packaging
  • Reduces food loss and waste

How to eat well for you and the planet

The EAT Forum have similar ideas about what a sustainable diet consists of, with a particular emphasis on planetary health. For food production to stay within planetary guidelines, while also maximising human health, our plate should consist of:

  • 50% vegetables and fruits
  • 50% whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils
  • Optionally, modest amounts of animal sources of protein

Do sustainable diets have to be vegetarian/vegan?

Experts at the EAT Forum believe that our diets should shift toward flexitarian  – this means eating more vegetarian foods with small amounts of fish and meat, such as one beef burger a week or one large steak a month. A diet that is mainly plant-based often causes concerns regarding a lack of protein consumption. To settle the plant-based versus animal protein debate you can learn more here.

While you can eat some meat sustainably, it is important to consider your intake, reduce how much red meat you eat, and see whether you can counter-act the impact of your meat consumption through other parts of your diet or consumer behaviour.

How to reduce food waste

As part of building a sustainable diet, we can also determine how much food we waste as individuals, which is important as food waste is a huge issue. For example, in the UK alone food wastes equates to 25 billion tonnes of GHG emissions a year. To reduce your own food waste footprint, you can do the following:

  • Plan meals ahead of time so you only buy what you need
  • Make use of food storage such as freezers
  • Cook tasty meals which use up your leftovers
  • Eat more home-cooked meals rather than takeaways

If you are interested in learning more about food waste, the EIT Food course ‘‘How to tackle food waste’ can help you on your way. Course educator and Senior Research Fellow Dr. Simona Grasso from the University of Reading also provides some practical tips to minimise waste. She says, “Next time you go shopping buy a bag of wonky vegetables, try to plan meals and bring a shopping list with you. You can also share food with others in your community using apps like ‘Olio’ and save food from going to waste with apps like ‘Too Good To Go’”.

If you want to read more about reducing household food waste, click here


Will a sustainable diet really benefit the planet?

Both the short and long answer is yes. Eating more sustainably can do wonders for ourselves and the environment. According to the EAT Forum, choosing healthy and sustainable food is one of the single most powerful actions that an individual can take to combat climate change. For example:

  • A Mediterranean diet could reduce diet-related GHG emissions by up to 30 percent
  • A vegetarian diet could reduce diet-related GHG emissions by up to 58 percent
  • Switching out meat for plant-based foods could reduce diet-related GHG emissions by 15 percent, (EIT Food, 2019).

With 9.8 billion mouths to feed by 2050, now is the time to make dietary changes. If we carry on as we are, our food consumption patterns by 2050 will exceed the planetary boundary for food-related GHG emissions by 263%. This means we would need seven planet Earths to maintain our current dietary habits.

To produce the extra food required for our growing population in a sustainable way, innovations in technology will play a crucial role. According to Queen’s University Belfast Education Lecturer Michaela Fox, “state of the art technologies across the food chain including precision farming, food formulation and processing, innovative packaging solutions, food sensing technologies, personalised nutrition and 3D printing are just some of these revolutionary technologies”. To learn more about these innovations you can take part in EIT Food’s ‘Revolutionising the Food Chain with Technology’ course, where you can take a closer look at how technology can help to build more sustainable diets.”

How to build a sustainable diet plan

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry. With so many startling statistics, it’s easy to feel information overload. Rather than focusing on the numbers, ask yourself a few questions to get started you’re your sustainable eating plan:

  • What is your current food budget and where is it spent? Try to include work lunches and any eating out to get a full picture.
  • How much food do you waste? Is it often the same food type?
  • Are you willing or able to cut out meat/fish from your diet?
  • Are you willing or able to cut milk/dairy from your diet?
  • Where can you shop to reduce your food miles?
  • What can you do to reduce the packaging that you use (e.g. buying loose fruit and veg from a greengrocer)?
  • What new things can you introduce to your diet for variety?
  • What do you currently buy in small quantities that could be bought and stored in bulk?
  • How many meals do you currently rotate? Most Britons rotate the same 9 meals on average – expanding your repertoire can help you use up leftovers and build a more varied diet.
  • What is realistic? Many diets fail because they end up being too expensive or too time-consuming. Being realistic in your expectations will cut down food waste and ensure that you can eat more sustainably, for longer.

When you have a good outline of your current situation, your options, and what you believe you can stick to, try to put together a rotating 2-week menu based on your options. When you try it, it’s a good idea to think about your own feelings about your diet and how much it impacts your lifestyle to make ongoing changes and adjustments so that you have the best diet for you and for the world around you.

When you go shopping, try to continually ask yourself:

  • Where was this food produced and in what conditions?
  • How far has this food come to reach me?
  • How has this food been packaged?
  • Do I eat too much or too little of this food?
  • How long will this food stay fresh?
  • Can I eat all of this food or will some of it be thrown away?

How can I learn more about sustainable diets?

EIT Food has many free online courses to help you learn more about sustainable food production and consumption. Here are a few listed below:

For more EIT Food courses click here

Building a sustainable diet can seem daunting at first, but if it benefits both us and the planet then it’s a win-win. Do you agree?


About the author: Laura Elphick is a Communications and Engagement Officer at EIT Food. She holds a First-Class Bachelor’s Degree in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing and is passionate about promoting a sustainable food environment to consumers.

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