Healthy eating and sustainability (by Fran Lennard)
Fran Lennard, from Blackburn, has a degree in Food and Nutrition from Deakin University and a passion for sustainability and community.
Does the way we eat have a major impact on the environment and on our health?
The short answer is: absolutely. In fact, food plays such a significant role in our lives. We all have to eat – to survive, to grow, to stay healthy – and thus food is relevant to everyone. But while the food system can promote both environment health and human health, our food system also poses a significant threat to both the environment and to our health.
Our modern-day food system
Before we dive into some of these issues, let’s examine the food system. So what exactly is a ‘food system’? Well, the food system is essentially a number of processes or activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food (see the diagram on the right). But it’s not just about the actual steps of the food system; rather, the biological, economical, political, social and cultural aspects of life all have a role to play in the food system.
Our 21st Century modernised food system places an enormous amount of pressure on not only the environment but also on our public health. Society has adjusted to a globalised food system where we can head into a supermarket and just about find anything we want and whenever we want.
The processes of the food system are some of the largest contributors to environmental degradation globally. The food system itself accounts for around 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions; uses 70% of the available freshwater on Earth; uses 20% of all energy resources; and is the largest cause of deforestation.
Here in Australia, 96% of Australian adults do not meet the recommended intake of vegetables for good health (at least 5 serves per day), while two thirds are either overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk for diet-related diseases like cardiovascular disease (stroke, coronary heart disease) and diabetes (Type 2).
Most everyday consumers can underestimate the environmental and health impacts of the food system. This is not surprising given the lack of research funding in the area and the fact that environmental sustainability is not even included in our national dietary guidelines! With our global population set to become almost 10 billion people by 2050, it has never been a more important time to fight for a healthier and more sustainable food system. Luckily, there is increasing interest in this topic by researchers, everyday environmentally conscious consumers and the like. There is mounting, high-quality evidence to suggest that changing the way we eat to more healthy and sustainable food practices could help mitigate these problems.
Two birds, one stone – healthy and sustainable eating
It may come as a surprise to some that healthy eating (i.e. eating wide range of nutritious foods, not too much junk food) does not necessarily equate to sustainable eating (i.e. eating with low environmental impact and maintaining food security), and vice versa.
Here is an example. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, healthy diets include a wide range of nutritious foods, with emphasis on high intake of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, low-fat diary and oily fish, for example. But currently, there are not enough global fish supplies to support the recommended two servings of fish per week. On the other hand, a diet that is perhaps low in meat and high in refined carbohydrates and sugars may be sustainable due to having a low environmental impact, but not good for promoting health and protecting against diet-related disease.
When considering how to achieve a healthy and sustainable diet, it is interesting to explore which food behaviours have the greatest impact on the environment. Dr Davina Mann, a Melbourne-based Australian and upcoming researcher in this field, writes: “Sometimes the food products or behaviours that have the largest impact on the environment are not obvious. For example, although food packaging does have an environmental impact, particularly if not disposed of correctly, it can help prolong the shelf life of food, help to keep it safe to consume, and assist in reducing associated food waste. It is important to take into consideration the transport method (with air-transported foods having the greatest impact), growing conditions and resources required or produced when evaluating the environmental impact of a food item. Given the complexity of calculating the exact environmental impact of specific food items or products, no wonder consumers across the globe are confused. Consistently consumers underestimate the environmental impact of consuming meat and dairy (in particular beef) and overestimate the food behaviours that have the most visible impact such as the transport distance and packaging of a food item.“
So how can we eat a more healthy and sustainable diet?
Some of the main ways that we can reduce the environmental impact of our diet while also promoting our own health include:
- Consuming mostly plant-based foods.
- Limit your meat (particularly beef) and dairy intake.
- Only eat enough food for your needs – do not over-consume.
- Decrease your consumption of discretionary foods and ultra-processed foods.
- Avoid food waste.
- Buy in season and local foods.
- Avoid buying air-imported foods.
- If you consume seafood, make sure it is from a sustainable source (check for the Marine Stewardship Council logo).
Also, spread the word! Discuss this topic with your friends and family, share your thoughts, read up on the topic from the resources below (start here).
These food behaviour changes can be big or small. For example, if you want to limit your meat intake, you could begin by reducing how frequently or how much you eat meat and/or aim to have at least three meat-free days a week.
NHMRC, The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, 2015.
Vermeulen S.J., Campbell B.M., Ingram, B., Climate Change and Food Systems. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2012;37, 195–222.
Aiking H., Boer J. de, Vereijken J. M., editors. Sustainable protein production and consumption: pigs of peas? Springer; 2009.
Tansey, G. & Worsley, A. (2014). The Food System: Hoboken : Taylor and Francis, 2014.
Willett et al (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, vol 383, issue 10170, pages 447-492.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’. Rome: FAO; 2018.
Mann, D. The way we eat has a major impact on the environment. 25th August, 2019.