Healthy diet, healthy planet: UK dietary advice backs plant proteins over meat & dairy

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based proteins have been given more prominence over meat and dairy for sustainability reasons in the UK's new Eatwell dietary guidelines.  © Olgaman
Plant-based proteins have been given more prominence over meat and dairy for sustainability reasons in the UK's new Eatwell dietary guidelines. © Olgaman

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The UK has put sustainability on the menu by backing plant proteins over meat and dairy for sustainability reasons in its updated dietary recommendation and healthy eating guide.

Published yesterday, the new Eatwell guide​ ​also gives increased importance to fibre while sugary drinks have been banished altogether.

The guide now says "Eat more beans and pulses, two portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, one of which is oily. Eat less red and processed meat."

The name on the protein segment group has been revisited to give more environmentally sustainable sources greater visibility, relegating meat to second last place after 'other proteins'. "[This] highlights the contribution that plant-based proteins can make to protein intake,"​ says the guide.

Clare Oxborrow, chair of Eating Better, said it welcomed the steps taken to make Britain's diet more eco-friendly. "More could be done to fully integrate sustainability into the UK's dietary guidelines – but this is a good start. With six out of 10 men and one in three women already consuming more processed and red meat than is good for their health, there are win-wins for health as well as for the planet in providing the public with this advice.”

Mark Driscoll, head of food at non-profit organisation Forum for the Future, said also welcomed the move. "This is the first time that the Eatwell Guide has recognised the link between sustainability and health, encouraging people to ‘get a balance of healthier and more sustainable food. [It's] a small step towards encouraging people to eat healthy and sustainable food. Furthermore, it has made the important connection between good nutrition and environment-friendly production. It is vital that we think about how we are going to feed 9 billion people in the future in a way that is both healthy and sustainable."

But Dr Emma Derbyshire, a nutritionist on the Meat Advisory Panel, said health may well be compromised.  "I have concerns about the low levels of animal foods and the impact this may have on vitamin and mineral intakes. Average red meat intakes have fallen in recent years and are now almost exactly the same as the Government recommendation of up to 70 g per day, or 500 g per week. Despite this, the new Eatwell Guide suggests that people should eat less red meat which is puzzling." 

The new guide also slashes the recommended amount of dairy from 15% to 8%, a decision slammed by trade group Dairy UK as "baffling and disappointing,” ​but a spokesperson for industry group, the Food and Drink Federation, said the guide reflected the broad range of protein sources that people have access to alongside meat and dairy.


But the UK is not the first country to align dietary advice with environmental concerns. Back in 2009 Sweden’s National Food Administration became the first government agency in the world to build a national set of dietary guidelines that took on board sustainability as well as health. The advice, drawn up in collaboration with the country’s Environment agency, was intended to put the environmental impact of food choices into context, said the NFA’s director at the time, with food accounting for one quarter of Swedes’ carbon emissions.

Fibre and starchy carbohydrates, preferably wholegrain have also been given more prominence as most British people consume only 19 g of fibre per day – less than two thirds of the recommended daily amount.

Meanwhile, one day after the announcement that Britain will impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2018 in a bid to curb childhood obesity, the government has also banished them completely from the guide. Other foods high fat, salt and sugar have been removed from actual Eatwell plate to be relocated outside the main image. Consumer research highlighted that the removal of these products from the main image aided consumer understanding of the role of these foods and drinks in the diet, as products to be consumed infrequently and in small amounts,” ​said the government.

These changes come in light of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s Carbohydrate and Health report​ which prompted Public Health England (PHE), the body that advises the British government on health policy, to review its healthy eating messages.

A front-of-pack nutrition label has also been added, while the maximum recommended daily 150 ml portion of fruit juice has been removed from the fruit and vegetable segment and placed with other drinks in order to reinforce messages on hydration .

The government has also rethought the way in which consumers engage visually with the guide, swapping photographs of food for drawn pictures. “Consumer testing (…) showed that those who are already engaged with food and nutrition tended to prefer photos, but those who are less engaged, and more likely to have a poor diet, preferred drawn images,” ​it said.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the revised guide would help people understand what a healthy balanced diet looks like. “The evidence shows that we should continue to base our meals on starchy carbohydrates, especially wholegrain, and eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day.

"On the whole, cutting back on foods and drinks that are high in saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories would improve our diets, helping to reduce obesity and the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease and some cancers. A smoothie, together with fruit juice, now only counts as 1 of your 5 a day and should be drunk with a meal as it’s high in sugar."

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Agree, good first step forward, what is next step

Posted by Jennifer,

We know a plant-based diet is the ideal - for both health and environment. The 'horse and cart' nutritionist on the meat board is on the wrong side of history. The internet is awash with good balanced plant-based diets and to her argument of "concerns" - veggie diet shows overall longest life. So, what does next-step eat well plate look like? No fish.. nut cheeses, more pics of veg in context (like curry), eat less and better quality 'plant-based' meats? ! ! Bring it on. Has the UK population rioted in the streets yet from this new update? No. Don't talk just do.

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Great advice except for the part about fish.

Posted by Mary Finelli,

Great advice except for the part about eating fish. Fish is a health hazard, not a healthful food: All of the nutrients derived from fish (and other animals/animal products) can be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally responsibly from plant sources.

Fish populations are in such a dire state, and aquatic ecosystems are in such unpredictable flux, that it is irresponsible to claim there are fishes who can be "sustainably sourced." They're better for us, for the other animals, and for the environment. Fish farming comes with its own hazards. It, too, is a problem, not a solution.

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