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Sustainable Diet: Everything You Need To Know

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Medically reviewed by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD, Nutrition — Written by Jon Johnson and Kimberly Holland 

A sustainable diet is one that is generally healthy and has a low impact on the environment and food supply.

Adopting a sustainable diet can help an individual maintain their health while also ensuring the planet has enough resources to feed future generations of humans.

This is a complex idea, but in the simplest terms, a sustainable diet aims to positively impact the individual and environment, both now and in the future.

There are no set rules on what makes a diet sustainable. However, some diets and food items might be more sustainable than others, and choosing them can help a person reduce their environmental impact.

Table of Contents:

What is the most sustainable diet?

The EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of scientists from 16 different countries, addressed the existing evidence surrounding the planet’s food demands, waste, and overall diet.

According to the Commission, food production is among the largest causes of global environmental change. It notes that vegan and vegetarian diets have the greatest reduction in land use and greenhouse gas emissions, and that vegetarian diets use the least water.

Their research notes that a universally healthy reference diet includes increasing consumption of:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains
  • nuts
  • legumes

Meanwhile, a person eating sustainably will eat little or no:

  • refined grains
  • added sugars
  • red meat
  • processed foods

As well as changing the environment with land clearing and other farming practices, food production has a major impact on greenhouse gases.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food production accounts for 20–30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 66% of water usage.

Although a varied diet is crucial to human health, a truly sustainable diet will also focus on the health of the environment.

A sustainable diet considers the impact it will have on the environment, the individual, and the food chain as a whole. Factors that determine the sustainability of a certain diet include:

  • nutritional availability
  • relative cost
  • biodiversity
  • ecosystem protection
  • general health

Considering all these factors should help ensure that the planet can continue providing enough food and resources for a growing population and future generations.

Some eating plans already adhere to these guidelines more than others, so following them may be a simple way to make the diet more sustainable. Diets that are more sustainable than the standard Western diet include:

Vegetarian and plant-based diets

The EAT-Lancet Commission notes that vegetarian and plant-based, or vegan, diets are more sustainable than those that contain meat and other animal products. The Commission notes that switching animal products for plant-based ones had environmental and health benefits.

They state that:

“Overall, studies concur that plant-based foods cause fewer adverse environmental effects per unit weight, per serving, per unit of energy, or per protein weight than does animal source foods across various environmental indicators.”

As a 2018 study notes, animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs are common topics of conversation when considering sustainable diets.

This is because these animal products have a few significant impacts to consider, including:

  • land use
  • water use
  • greenhouse gas emissions

In 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted that livestock makes up 14.5% of all human-induced emissions. Reducing the need for livestock and improving farming practices can help lower this impact.

Some farms are now working on composting animal waste for fertilizer use and capturing methane gas to supply the energy needs of the farming operation.

Animal foods can still have a place in a sustainable diet, though there is no agreement on how much animal food a person can eat and still be sustainable.

In general, a diet higher in plant foods is more sustainable than a diet higher in animal products.

The issue is complex, with many contributing factors, including:

  • land use
  • overfishing
  • methane production from farm animals
  • water usage to grow crops to feed livestock

For example, farming an acre of corn for human consumption means all that food can go directly to feeding a growing human population.

For people who eat animal products, the same acre of corn would go toward feeding livestock. However, the animals themselves also take up additional land and resources. So, farming animal foods requires significantly more land.

However, keep in mind that simply following a plant-based diet does not automatically mean the diet is more environmentally friendly or responsible than an omnivorous diet.

For example, a vegan choosing highly processed packaged foods can have a much larger carbon footprint compared with an omnivore who carefully sources their animal products, raises their own chickens, grows their own vegetables, and so on.

Learn more about the health benefits of plant-based diets in this article.

Local food diets

Local food diets focus on eating foods from the area where a person lives.

However, depending on where a person lives, these diets can take significant planning to implement. People in northern regions, where fewer fruits and vegetables grow, may need to take extra steps to ensure they get enough nutrients.

The idea behind local food diets is to reduce the “food miles” necessary for produce and other foods to reach supermarkets.

This type of diet emphasizes eating seasonally, and many people may also choose to buy from local organic farms.

That said, there have been few studies into the environmental impact of eating locally, and experts argue that locally grown or raised food does not always have a lower carbon footprint.

However, some possible benefits for the environment include:

  • reducing the need for transporting food long distances
  • reducing food packaging and waste, as the produce does not have to last as long
  • reducing resources necessary to grow food that is out of season
  • supporting local economies and small farms
Flexitarian diet

The flexitarian diet focuses on plant foods but is also “flexible,” meaning people can include animal products sparingly.

This diet aims to reduce the environmental impact an individual has by reducing their consumption of:

  • red meat
  • fish
  • dairy
  • packaged foods

A sustainable flexitarian diet could still include these products, just in smaller amounts, while keeping the focus on whole plant foods.

However, there is no consensus on how many animal products a person can eat in a given time while being sustainable.

A flexitarian diet is likely a good choice for a person’s overall health, too. Research into sustainable diets has found that people who follow vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, and semi-vegetarian diets have a 12% lower overall mortality risk than people who eat meat.

Learn more about the differences between vegan and vegetarian diets.

As with most dietary changes, many people find the switch to a more sustainable diet easier if they approach the process step by step.

Making a huge change all at once may be difficult, and it may lead to a person reverting to their old diet if they cannot keep up with the changes.

If a person is looking to make more sustainable changes to the way they eat, they should consider these steps. Taken all at once or individually over time, they can help a person reduce their impact on the environment and improve their health.

Shift focus from animal products

It is not necessary to eliminate meat and animal products entirely if that is not an easy first step. However, small reductions in total consumption over time can have significant impacts.

One simple way is to set aside one day of the week to eat only plant products, such as the popular “meat-free Monday” initiative. Eating less meat and fewer animal products will reduce a person’s carbon footprint and may help improve their health, too.

Play up plants

Fruits, vegetables, and grains are rich sources of essential nutrients and vitamins and contribute significantly to better health.

They also require fewer resources and have a lower environmental impact than meat and animal products. Plant-based proteins, such as tofu, legumes, and beans, are more environmentally friendly than meats, too.

Flip the plate

A person looking to eat more sustainably can make an effort to flip the ratio of foods on their plates from mainly meat to primarily plants. A plate with at least half vegetables and one-quarter grains will naturally be more sustainable than a plate with a large piece of meat and smaller servings of vegetables and grains.

Shop locally

One of the best ways a person can reduce their impact on the environment is by reducing how much packaging, processing, and shipping their food needs. That can begin with buying local foods, including both plant and animal products.

When a person buys closer to the source, they can also seek out and support producers who use environmentally friendly growing methods, such as regenerative farming, or people who ethically raise their stocks.

Eat seasonally

Shopping locally inevitably means eating seasonally, which is another way to eat more sustainably. Seasonal eating requires fewer resources to ship out-of-season foods great distances, and it cuts down on greenhouse and hothouse use, which also require more resources.

Meal plan to reduce food waste

Food waste is among the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Uneaten food decomposes in landfills, releasing methane gas, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses.

A person can curb food waste by planning what they’re going to cook and eat every week, shopping only for what they plan to use, and using leftovers.

Cut down on processed foods

Processed foods require many resources to be manufactured. Plus, most packaged and processed foods are made in one location and then shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to a store. Begin by swapping out packaged foods such as cereals and snack foods with whole foods, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Eat fewer calories

Reducing total food consumption is one way to eat a more sustainable diet. If a person eats less food, they require fewer resources. Plus, it is possible to eat fewer calories and still have a healthy diet that is filled with essential vitamins and nutrients. As a bonus, eating less may help a person lose weight, if that is a concern.

Learn more about becoming a vegetarian here.

Nutrition

Generally, switching to a sustainable diet has little to no risk. If a person takes some conscious steps to ensure that they meet all their nutritional needs, reducing the intake of animal products and increasing the intake of plant foods can still cover all their nutritional requirements.

The sections below discuss the specific nutritional elements of switching to a more sustainable diet.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables have a very low environmental impact, though there are some exceptions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 1 in 10 people in the United States eats enough fruits and vegetables. Increasing the intake of whole fruits and vegetables is a healthy choice for most people.

Meat

Meat typically has a high environmental impact. Although meat is rich in calories, protein, fats, and micronutrients, consuming a diet high in red meat has been associated with an increased risk of certain medical conditions, including colon cancer.

Eating less meat as part of a balanced diet is better for overall health.

Dairy

Milk and other dairy products also have a high environmental impact. However, they are an important and affordable source of key nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, for many people.

That said, it is possible to reduce dairy intake and still maintain good health. People can talk with a doctor or dietitian about getting enough nutrients, or they can read about nondairy sources of calcium in this article.

Fish

Fish generally has a high environmental impact, too. Many fish stocks are now depleted due to overfishing and other unsustainable practices.

However, fish is also a good source of key nutrients and healthy fats. Reducing fish consumption or eating from sustainable sources can help reduce the environmental impact.

Packaged foods

Packaged foods contribute to waste and plastic use. Many packaged foods are also processed, such as sugary snacks, and they may provide little dietary nutrition as a result.

Reducing or eliminating packaged food can help a person reduce waste and contribute to their overall health.

How regenerative farming helps sustainability

Regenerative farming is not a new concept. In fact, it is centuries old. But in recent decades, it is getting a new look from farmers and growers who want to use more sustainable growing practices.

The concept of sustainable farming can be boiled down to this phrase: “Do no harm.”

However, regenerative farming goes one step further. It seeks to actually improve the soil, land, water, and climate, not just avoid harming them.

The goals of regenerative farming include:

  • rebuilding soil’s organic matter, making it more fertile, and limiting soil disturbances and loss
  • nurturing relationships between animals, crops, and the broader ecosystem
  • helping land become more resilient to flood, drought, and other weather
  • curbing weed and pest problems naturally (without chemicals)
  • sequestering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the soil to slow climate change
Types of regenerative farming

Healthy soil and farming systems are capable of producing high quality, nutrient-dense foods. This can help maintain healthy supply chains for the world’s food needs.

But it can simultaneously ensure that these same lands are healthy and capable of continuing to produce food and support livestock for many centuries more.

Current industrial agricultural practices do no such thing. They have led to an increase in soil, water, and air pollution. They do not prioritize biodiversity or ecological balance. They also do not have solutions for weather and climate-related problems, such as drought and storms.

That is where regenerative farming, a more sustainable form of farming, aims to turn things around.

There is no single type of regenerative farming. Instead, farmers and growers can use one or several types of practices that have favorable impacts to meet their farm’s needs.

Regenerative growing techniques include:

  • Cover cropping: Replanting crops in soil after a harvest can help reduce erosion, increase water retention, boost soil biodiversity, and potentially provide another revenue stream for the farmer.
  • No-till farming: Tilling is disruptive to soil health and speeds up erosion. The no-till technique leaves the soil intact for planting to avoid these costly disruptions.
  • Rotational grazing: Farmers can rotate their stocks through pastures regularly. This allows pasture grasses to grow naturally and provides plentiful natural fertilizer (manure). Over time, this technique will boost soil fertility and help restore the ground’s biodiversity.
  • Composting: Not just for suburban households, composting is a way of turning waste, such as food or manure, into fertilizer. This is one way farmers and growers can reduce their dependency on costly fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and chemicals.
  • Agroforestry: Originally developed by indigenous farmers, this practice incorporates trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. It mimics forests and helps increase soil biodiversity and health.

Farmers and growers may also use natural buffers, including hedgerows, to protect fields and pastures from severe weather (such as winds) and help bolster natural habitats for beneficial organisms, including pollinators.

How to support regenerative farming

For farmers, switching from traditional industrial farming practices to more sustainable regenerative farming can be costly. However, proponents of regenerative farming argue that industrial farming practices are far costlier, especially for the future of farming.

Still, many farmers are considering this move and may be more willing if they know their community supports it and will seek out their products.

Some ways for consumers to support regenerative farming include:

  • Joining a regenerative farming cooperative: Farmers using regenerative practices may band together in formal or informal cooperatives. This allows for support from their fellow growers and can also help them have a steady source of customers for their animal products or plants.
  • Supporting local growers: Buying local is already a great way to be a more sustainable shopper. A person can be even more selective and choose to buy from and support growers in nearby communities that are using regenerative farming techniques.
  • Speaking up for sustainable initiatives: Some states and communities are working to offset the burden of switching to regenerative farming through direct funding and mentoring groups, but more are needed. In California, for example, the Healthy Soils Initiative collaborates with stakeholders in state and federal governments to ease burdens. It also provides financial incentives to farmers willing to implement conservation management practices. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship offers a cover crop incentive program that will pay farmers $5 per acre if they plant cover crops.

Summary

Dietary sustainability is not clear-cut. The general guidelines include reducing the consumption of meat, dairy, fish, and packaged foods.

A sustainable diet focuses on higher intakes of whole plant foods. People may still choose to eat animal products but in much lower quantities.

Anyone thinking of switching to a more sustainable diet should consider what diet they would be likely to stick to and try making small steps first.

MedicalNewsToday, posted on SouthFloridaReporter.comMar. 13, 2022

Republished with permission

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