Can a healthy diet be sustainable?

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 03 Jun, 2014

With an expanding world population and an increase in prospering societies, demand for food is increasing at a rapid rate. However, we have a finite amount of land and resources available to produce food. So is being healthy also better for our environment?

Researchers have recently found only 1% of adults in the UK meet all 6 requirements recommended by the Eatwell Plate. It is believed that if people in the UK improved their diets in line with the recommendations set by the Eatwell Plate, this could lead to a 22-28% reduction in green house gas emissions!

Food systems are accountable for around 18-20% of all green house gas emissions produced in the UK, with dairy and meat production being the largest contributor. These two food groups also contribute towards 50% of the total intake of saturated fat within UK diets. On the surface you would think reducing these two food groups would help our bodies as well as our environment. Unfortunately it's not quite that simple. Reducing consumption of these two food groups without expert advice and guidance could lead to deficiencies in essential minerals. Reducing dairy for example may have a detrimental effect on our calcium intake and in turn possibly reduce bone quality – many young adults already have low calcium intakes so it would not be suitable to recommend reducing the amount of dairy in our diets.

Although there is an increasing amount of research in this area, no firm recommendations have been made as yet. However there are a number of ways you can eat healthily and sustainably:

Reduction in red meat and processed meat

A high consumption of red and processed meats can lead to an increased risk of developing bowel cancer. Reducing your consumption of these will help to improve your health but also work towards a more sustainable diet. Try replacing meat with veggie forms of proteins such as beans and pulses. Recent research has also suggested eating insects as a renewable protein source – I'm not sure about that one!

Choose sustainably sourced fish

I'm sure many of you have seen the increase in media coverage with regards to the importance of choosing sustainably sourced fish. If not, the worry is our oceans are being overfished with over 50% of unwanted fish thrown back into the sea dead. To learn more about choosing sustainable fish visit the Marine Conservation Society website. red tractor

Look for the Red Tractor

Not only does the red tractor indicate that meat is produced in Britain, the production of the meat also has to fit within strict environmental and ethical regulations.

Waste less

Around 7 million tonnes of food and drink is wasted in the UK each year and more than half of this is still safe to eat. This waste costs the average UK household £470 a year – around £9 each week!

Tips to avoid waste:

  • Planning to avoid waste can also help to avoid over eating, so before each shopping trip plan out your meals for the week and make a list from that – only buy what is on your list and don't be tempted by those pesky end of aisle offers.
  • Make your meat stretch to more than one meal by bulking dishes out with extra veg, beans and pulses (you'll also be cutting down on calories!).
  • Love Food Hate Waste is a great website if you are looking for some more tips on using up left overs and some really handy online planning tools.
  • Don't throw food out just because it's past its 'Best Before' date – this doesn't mean it's gone off, just that the quality might not be as good as usual. 'Use by' dates are different and indicate that food shouldn't be eaten past this date.

Food sustainability is an increasing concern for many scientists, with this there is an increasing amount of research being conducted in this area. Keep working towards the Eatwell guidelines and do your bit for our environment!

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.