1. Health & Lifestyle

Sustainable Diet: Make These Changes to Your Diet to Live Healthier

Shivam Dwivedi
Shivam Dwivedi
Sustainable Diet
Sustainable Diet

Sustainability is a multidimensional issue, in which the food- production system and our diets play a vital role. To achieve a sustainable and healthy food future, we all need to work together.

Embracing a sustainable diet can help maintain an individual’s health while also ensuring the planet has enough resources to feed upcoming generations. In simplest terms, a sustainable diet looks to have a positive impact on the individual & environment, both now and in the future.

What is Sustainable Diet?

There's no fixed rule on what makes a diet sustainable. Though, some food items or diets might be more sustainable than others, and adopting them can help a person reduce their environmental impact. Eating a hot dog could cost you 36 minutes of healthy life, while choosing to eat a serving of nuts instead could help you gain 26 minutes of extra healthy life, as per a new study.

"Sustainable Diets are those diets with less environmental impacts that contribute to food & nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. These diets are protective & respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources".

Therefore, a sustainable diet also considers about the impact it will have on the environment, the individual, and the food chain as a whole. Factors that determine how sustainable a certain diet is include:

Why It's Important?

  • Nowadays, environmental issues are big news and climate experts acknowledge that governments, industry leaders and consumers need to act now on a range of changes including what food we produce and how we eat.

  • Right now, more than 3 billion people are malnourished and many of our planet’s 7 billion inhabitants eat foods low in quality. Apart from this, the world’s population is expanding very rapidly, and it is estimated that there will be about 10 billion people on our planet by 2050. 

  • As far as the sustainable food development is concerned, the purpose is to make sure a future when this growing population has both enough food available to eat and access to high quality, nutritious foods.

  • We can say that a sustainable diet is one that is generally healthful and has a low impact on the environment & food supply. Adopting a sustainable diet can help maintain an individual's health while also ensuring the planet has enough resources to feed future generations of humans.

Latest Research Findings: 

Recently a study, published in the journal Nature Food, evaluated more than 5,800 foods, ranking them by their nutritional disease burden to humans and their impact on the environment. It found that substituting 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meats for a mix of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and select seafood could reduce your dietary carbon footprint by one-third and allow people to gain 48 minutes of healthy minutes per day.

"Generally, dietary recommendations lack specific and actionable direction to motivate people to change their behavior, and rarely do dietary recommendations address environmental impacts," said Katerina Stylianou, who did the research as a doctoral candidate and postdoctoral fellow in the the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at U-M's School of Public Health. She currently works as the Director of Public Health Information and Data Strategy at the Detroit Health Department.

Adding Environmental Impact to the Mix:

To assess the environmental impact of foods, the researchers utilized IMPACT World+, a method to evaluate the impact of life cycle of foods (production, processing, manufacturing, preparation/cooking, consumption, waste), and added improved assessments for water use and human health damages from fine particulate matter formation. They developed scores for 18 environmental indicators taking into consideration detailed food recipes as well as anticipated food waste.

Finally, Researchers classified foods into three color zones: Green, Yellow & Red, based on their combined nutritional and environmental performances, much like a traffic light.

Green Zone:

This zone represents foods that are suggested to increase in one's diet and contains foods that are both nutritionally beneficial and have low environmental impacts. Foods in this zone are predominantly nuts, fruits, field-grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains and some seafood.

Red Zone: 

It includes foods that have either considerable nutritional or environmental impacts and should be reduced or avoided in one's diet. Nutritional impacts were primarily driven by processed meats, and climate and most other environmental impacts driven by beef and pork, lamb and processed meats.

The Researchers accepted that the range of all indicators varies substantially and also point out that nutritionally beneficial foods might not always generate the lowest environmental impacts and vice versa.

"Previous studies have often reduced their findings to a plant vs. animal-based foods discussion," Stylianou said. "Although we find that plant-based foods generally perform better, there are considerable variations within both plant-based and animal-based foods."

Recommendations by the Researchers:

Increasing the most nutritionally beneficial foods, including field-grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and low-environmental impact seafood.

Decreasing foods with the most negative health and environmental impacts including high processed meat, beef, shrimp, followed by pork, lamb and greenhouse-grown vegetables.

"The urgency of dietary changes to improve human health and the environment is clear," said Olivier Jolliet, U-M professor of environmental health science and senior author of the paper. "Our findings demonstrate that small targeted substitutions offer a feasible and powerful strategy to achieve significant health and environmental benefits without requiring dramatic dietary shifts."

The project was carried out within the frame of an unrestricted grant from the National Dairy Council and of the University of Michigan Dow Sustainability Fellowship. The researchers are also working with partners in Switzerland, Brazil and Singapore to develop similar evaluation systems there. Eventually, they would like to expand it to countries all around the world.

(Source: University of Michigan)

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