According to the World Health Organization (WHO), few dietary guidelines exist that take sustainability into account. Its recently published information sheet ‘A healthy diet sustainably produced’, however, indicates that promoting both human and environmental well-being together may provide ‘win-wins’.
“Current food production is known to have a major impact on the environment – accounting for 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions and two-thirds of water use as well as being the leading cause of deforestation and contributing to biodiversity loss – while climate change and other environmental changes threaten food systems’ capacity to provide healthy diets for all in the future” – World Health Organisation
“We see that healthy diet is a key determinant of health. At the same time, we acknowledge…that the way food is produced [and]… the evolution of consumption may lead to the worsening of the situation in terms of climate change,” Francesco Branca, director of nutrition for health and development, WHO, told FoodNavigator.
“Now that there is this understanding of how food production is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions… we feel that it’s difficult to separate our message on a healthy diet from our message on sustainable food production,” he added.
A healthy diet founded on sustainable food systems
The WHO’s healthy diet recommendations include the consumption of good quality protein, predominantly unrefined complex carbohydrates in foods that are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and the consumption of fats in moderation – less than 5 g daily.
According to the information sheet, a safe and healthy diet (that is also safe and healthy for the planet) should be sustainably produced and consumed. The WHO flagged food distribution and consumption practices as having effects on human health and environmental sustainability.
“Unnecessary packaging is a source of waste and globally, a third of all food is currently lost or wasted,” wrote the WHO.
WHO on sustainable food choices
A healthy diet that has a lower environmental impact includes a wide variety of foods – with an emphasis on plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and pulses) and on locally-produced, home-prepared foods – and provides just the right amount of calories.
It includes sustainably sourced fish/shellfish, moderate amounts of milk and dairy products (or dairy alternatives) and modest amounts of fats and oils, mainly from vegetable sources.
It is limited in red meat (if eaten), especially red meat and processed meat products, and limited in processed foods high in fat, sugar or salt. It does not include sugar-sweetened beverages.
Government and industry support required
Greater political investment is required to implement changes in consumers’ diets, said Branca.
“At the moment, the quality of diet in most parts of the world – in particular in low-income countries – does not comply with these recommendations,” he explained.
“In addition to providing the right information to consumers, [policy makers can focus on] the price of foods, policies about the availability of food products – for example about food procurement in public institutions – [and] about providing information to consumers at the point of sale through adequate nutrition labelling.”
While the information sheet specifically targets policymakers, Branca said consumers and food industry professionals can also learn from the recommendations.
“Food manufacturers have a big role at all levels. Primary producers and food manufacturers may contribute both to the improvement of the nutrition quality of food, the health profile of [our] diet, as well as via sustainability.”