Sustainable diets have been defined as those “with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations”. (FAO and Bioversity, 2012)
The aim of a sustainable diet is to protect and respect biodiversity and ecosystems whilst also remaining accessible, nutritionally adequate and affordable. Most of us in the developing world have enough resources to eat what we like and when we like it. We have expected to be able to purchase foods all year round, whether they are in season or not, as well as purchasing foods at our convenience. We give little thought to where our food has come from or how it was produced. This ignorance places massive amounts of pressure on global food systems. Pressure which is completely unsustainable!
This week, on World Food Day, The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation chief highlighted the importance of collaboration and the role everyone needs to play – from governments, food companies, the public sector, research institutions to consumers – to make progress towards enabling healthy diets for all, and to halt and hopefully begin to reverse the current trend of rising hunger and obesity. Overall shifts in order to make diets sustainable and healthier will take changes to governance, production, consumption and economic intervention. An example on this was the recent tax which was introduced in Ireland for sugary drinks. Nonetheless, there are a number of steps which we as individuals can take in order to contribute to us becoming a more food-savvy society. The report of the EAT Lancet Commission highlights that food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. Moreover, our current global food production structures threaten climate stability and ecosystem resilience. Therefore to produce more food using our current production methods to meet the level of people suffering from hunger in the world is completely unsustainable, as it would require more arable land, more fresh water and buckets of non-renewable energy. At the moment, approximately 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life and suffer from hunger every day. That’s about one in nine people on earth.
If this alone isn’t reason enough to move to a more sustainable diet, I don’t know what is!
So, How do we move towards a more sustainable diet?
To begin with, we can make subtle changes to out food choices. The EAT Lancet Report advocates for a planetary health diet i.e. a diet which is best for humans and the planet. The diet is flexitarian meaning it is semi-vegetarian so predominantly plant-based but can include modest amounts of fish, meat and dairy products. A breakdown of the foods can be highlighted as:
- Red meat
- Starchy vegetables
- Dairy foods
- Whole grains
Leading on from this my tips are:
- Prioritise plants – opting to fill half your plate with vegetable and fruits. Shifting to this way of eating will help reduce freshwater withdrawals and deforestation. Be careful though and always try as much as possible to buy in season fruit and vegetables, as well as locally produced if you can! This will assist in limiting the carbon footprint of your meal.
- Minimise meat consumption: following on from the flexitarian diet, you should try and limit the amount of meat you are consuming each week. Meat production, particularly red meat, is a substantial contributor to green house gas emissions. Raising and transporting livestock requires more food, water, land and energy than producing plants does. If you are an avid meat eater I would begin the transition slowly by reducing the amount of red meat you consume in one week. Try locating poultry or veggie alternatives to your favourite red meat based meals. You will notice yourself automatically becoming less reliant on meat.
- Look local – where you can and when feasible try and produce foods which are grown locally. This series will include a later post on recommendations for all my Irish readers on cutting down on waste in your weekly food shop so keep an eye out.
- Practice mindful eating – this is something that I personally fail miserably at. There are a number of occasions where I have opted to prioritise work and ate lunch at my desk. I am pledging to take more time to focus on the what and why of eating something. As well as this, by tuning into your body you may learn that you don’t require as much food as you think you do and you will automatically cut down on portion sizes and curb bad habits such as eating out of boredom.
- Eat a variety of foods – I am 100% guilty for not doing this. Currently too many people rely on the same dishes and core ingredients for example a number of dishes I make can revolve around chicken. By opting for more plants and colour in our plate we will ensure we are getting a more nutritious and flavourful meal. By also trying to buy in season veg and fruit where possible this will also mean that we will have to vary our diets!
- Waste less food – simple, plan ahead before food shops, it will result in your wasting less food because it has spoiled, resulting in less food waste. It will also mean less mid week stops to the shop to stock up.
- Focus on eating three solid meals a day – This is something I fail at miserably as when it comes to dinner I am generally exhausted after work and will opt for something which is convenient and easy. Often opting to grab a bowl of cereal. If you make your meals into a set routine of three proper meals a day you will snack less and be much more consistent with what and how you are eating.
- Meal prep – This goes hand in hand with above, preparation is key. I go through phases of prepping food one week and then falling off the wagon the following week. I would suggest prepping on Sunday for the first half of the week and then setting up some time midweek to meal prep for the rest of the week. Always remember to take into account social events etc. so you’re not unnecessarily prepping foods you won’t consume. Meal prepping will also help you produce less food waste, as if you plan your meals our for the week, you are less likely to impulse purchase items.
- Look to food alternatives – I would suggest in look for some food alternatives, especially when it comes to dairy. The market for non-dairy items such as nut milks is completely saturated. I would advise to air on the side of caution as a lot of non-dairy milks can be just as water and energy intensive when it comes to production as regular milk can be. Also read the labels of milk alternatives to ensure you are getting what you bargained for and not a number of additives and stabilisers! Personally, I generally opt for oat milk by oatly or coconut milk by alpro soya.
Top tip – ALWAYS stay HEALTHY!
A healthy diet should optimise our health – meaning our physical, mental and social well-being. A well rounded and healthy diet should consist of mainly large quantities of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods (you don’t have to cut it all out completely), contain unsaturated rather than saturated fats and limits the amount of refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars. I am 100% not advocating for people to begin making radical changes within their diets but rather choosing to slowly shift their thinking in terms of what you consume. Personally, I am a meat eater but I am pledging to become more flexitarian in the way I eat – the reasoning behind this is both the environment and my own health! How our food is produced, what we consume and how much food is wasted all place a large role in the health or both us and the planet. There is no doubt that food will be a defining issue of the 21st century and will play a make or break role in the global community achieving the SDG’s and the Paris Agreement. If you are considering joining me on my pledge to adopt a more sustainable diet, check out the resources available on eat forum for weekly meal inspiration.