What is a sustainable diet?

Food: the critical issues

Having adapted my own diet, and been enlightened by leaders at the WBSCD, I have begun to understand the rising importance of the ‘food sustainability’ issue. I have researched the topic further, and begun to think about how others can act and eat more sustainably. I hope that my blog will enlighten you into one of the principal environmental issues, and how small and simple steps – such as reducing meat consumption and avoiding food waste – can benefit us all.

We seem to be entering a movement of diets and super-foods, with an increasing enjoyment and a bigger hype for plant based diets and healthy foods. In fact, veganism – which cuts away all animal products from your diet – has increased by over 360% in the past 10 years in the UK (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/number-of-vegans-in-britain-rises-by-360-in-10-years/). Having become vegan myself, I am now more thoughtful in my purchase decisions, and see the benefits of being meat and dairy free on my both my lifestyle and the environment. Now, over 70% of food related brands acknowledge sustainability as part of their process, with organisations recognising this growing interest in consumers.

Despite this, the modern consumer often finds it difficult to identify what impacts their purchases have on the environment, and it is often difficult to understand the effects of a product’s supply chain (we often purchase impulsively – rather than sustainably). This means we often opt for the cheapest or ‘best’ option for us rather than making the sustainable decision. In fact, many of us are unaware of how to implement a more sustainable diet. There is so much information on the topic that it is difficult to narrow this down to relevant and applicable data: in this blog I will attempt to do so.



According to Sustainable diets and diversity (2010) a sustainable diet is defined by:

those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources

However, this broad definition makes it difficult to understand what actions can be made to have a sustainable diet. In the case of the UK and US, two of the biggest issues within food sustainability are ‘Food waste’ and ‘Meat and Dairy production’, particularly in their contributions to deforestation and global warming. Thus, I will discuss both in more detail:


1)      Meat and Dairy

Firstly, a diet can be more sustainable by reducing (or even cutting out) meat consumption. Consuming less meat could not only lead to savings in GHGs, land and water use, it can also be consistent with or actively improve health. There will simply not be enough land in the future to supply to the demands of meat that we are eating and, in fact, wasting (we shall discuss this below).

The World Resource Institute (2011) state Americans could cut their diet’s environmental impact by half by simply reducing meat and dairy consumption. A reduction in meat consumption will be necessary, due to the inclining population and meat and dairy’s effects on land: already 25% of global land is highly degraded and 80% of terrestrial biodiversity lost related to this. This can be changed by eating more healthily and switching meat and dairy products for more plant-based foods. An increase in plant-based foods such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits can be greatly more beneficial for your health. These resources can be repeatedly produced, without such damage, and are significantly less impactful in terms of land use and GHG’s.

There are increasing substitutes for meat, with the recent development of ‘cultured meat’, a lab-grown animal meat, which does not use animals. This could have “financial, health, animal welfare and environmental advantages over traditional meat” and has revolutionised the meat industry. (http://www.futurefood.org/in-vitro-meat/index_en.php)

See the chart below for the effects of meat and diet on GHG emissions and Land usage:



2)      Food Waste

The World Institute’s research show that on average 1/3 of our food is wasted. We are being given too much of a choice in our food, with 24% of calories produced for people never being consumed. But who is to blame? While it is often hard to make sustainably conscious decisions with consumption size and food waste in mind –particularly on a tight budget, organisations face legislations and standards which force food waste to occur e.g. irregular shaped vegetables or high health and safety standards. Therefore, both consumers and customers must adapt, and take an active role in these goals, which requires companies to fundamentally change their business models and for us to make more conscious decisions when shopping and discarding packaging or food. In order to do this we all must engage with these issues more deeply.

By 2050, it is predicted that the world will need approximately 60% more calories per year to feed a projected 9 billion people. Cutting the rate of global food loss and waste could help close this food gap while creating environmental and economic benefits.

The chart below shows the relationship between income and intake of calories. Above the darker line is where we are overconsuming (on average) in calories, and with a higher GDP, consumers often diversify their diets, leading to us consuming more calories than we need. I was astounded to see the number of quantities surpassing their nutritional requirements, highlighting the issues of overconsumption and food waste.

gdp and food consumption

Food and agriculture is the second largest contributor to GHG emission’s, however, it is not addressed nearly as much as Transportation (which is fourth). Currently more one-third (35.7 percent) of people are overweight, yet over 800 million over-malnourished. How can we address this critical issue – promptly – which is likely to worsen as population surges/

We must all engage with food sustainability imminently, by spreading knowledge and awareness on the issue. Meanwhile, we can all adapt our own diets to be more sustainable – whether that be choosing ‘organic’ products over regular, inputting less waste or cutting out meat all together!


Thanks again for reading!



Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010). Sustainable diets and Biodiversity. Nutrition and Consumer Protection division. [online] Rome: FAO. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3004e/i3004e.pdf [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].

Futurefood.org. (2017). Future Food – In Vitro Meat. [online] Available at: http://www.futurefood.org/in-vitro-meat/index_en.php/work/topics/food [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].

Quinn, S. (2017). Number of vegans in Britain rises by 360% in 10 years. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/number-of-vegans-in-britain-rises-by-360-in-10-years [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].

Wri.org. (2017). Food | World Resources Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/our-work/topics/food [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].

Wri.org. (2017). Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts | World Resources Institute. [online] Available at: http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].


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