What is a sustainable diet?
A sustainable diet is one that is generally healthful and has a low impact on the environment and food supply. Adopting a sustainable diet can help maintain an individual’s health while also making sure the planet has enough resources to feed future generations of humans.
This is a complex idea, but in the simplest terms, a sustainable diet looks to have a positive impact on the individual and environment, both now and in the future. There are no set rules on what makes a diet sustainable. However, some diets and food items might be more sustainable than others, and choosing them can help a person reduce their environmental impact.
Eat more fruits and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are good for our health, and most come with a low environmental impact. There are exceptions, as some require a lot of resources to transport and keep fresh, so eating these less frequently can increase the sustainability of our diets. Examples include:
- Fruits and vegetables that are fragile, or require refrigeration (salads and berries).
- Vegetables that are grown in protected conditions (such as hot-house tomatoes or cucumbers).
- Foods that use a lot of resources during transport (green beans, mange-touts, or berries imported from the southern hemisphere).
Eat locally, when in season
Locally-grown foods can be a sustainable choice if we choose those that are in a season where we live. The cost of producing or storing local foods beyond their natural growing seasons could be higher than shipping foods that are in season somewhere else.
Avoid eating more than needed, especially treats
Consuming only what we need reduces demands on our food supply by decreasing excess production. It also helps to keep us healthy and avoid excessive weight gain. Limiting snacking on energy-dense low-nutrient foods and paying attention to portion sizes are all useful ways to avoid unnecessary overconsumption.
Swap animal proteins for plant-based ones
In general, more resources are needed to produce animal-based proteins (especially beef), compared to plant-based proteins (such as beans, pulses, and some grains). Eating a more plant-based diet also brings health benefits: plant-based food provides more fiber and has a lower saturated fat content, both of which can contribute to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- For meat-eaters, limiting meat consumption to 1-2 times a week, having meat-free days, and choosing more sustainable meats like chicken over beef can help us reduce our ecological footprint.
- For those choosing a vegan/vegetarian diet, combining different sources of plant-based protein will ensure our protein needs are met.
Choose whole grains
Non-refined cereals are generally less resource-intensive to produce than refined ones as they require fewer processing steps. They are also good for health, reducing our risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and overweight.
- Wholemeal bread, whole grain pasta, unrefined barley, buckwheat, and quinoa, are great choices.
- Brown rice is a good substitute for white rice, but it should be enjoyed in moderation, as a lot of water is used during its production.
Choose sustainably sourced seafood
Fish is a good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to normal vision, brain function, and heart health. However, overfishing is causing wild fish stocks to become depleted. In order to benefit from the necessary nutrients and reduce pressure on wild fish stocks:
- Consume fish and seafood 1-2 times weekly to provide the necessary nutrients and reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.
Eat dairy products in moderation
While milk and dairy products have an important environmental impact, dairy products are an important source of protein, calcium, and essential amino acids, and have been linked to a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, stroke, bowel cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
- Enjoy low-fat unsweetened dairy products daily, but in moderation.
- Limit consumption of high-fat cheeses to occasional.
- For those of us who choose to eliminate dairy completely, opt for plant-based drinks that are fortified with vitamins and minerals, like calcium.
Dietary sustainability is not clear-cut. The general guidelines include reducing the consumption of meat, dairy, fish, and packaged foods.
A sustainable diet focuses on higher intakes of whole plant foods. People may still choose to eat animal products but in much lower quantities. Anyone considering making the switch to a more sustainable diet should consider what diet they would be likely to stick to and try making small steps first.