Sustainable diets


Sustainable diets are dietary patterns that promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable (FAO and WHO, 2019; Biesbroek et al, 2023). These diets are nutritious, eco-friendly, economically sustainable, and accessible to people of various socioeconomic backgrounds (FAO and WHO, 2019). The aims of sustainable diets are to achieve optimal growth and development of all individuals and support functioning and physical, mental, and social wellbeing at all life stages for present and future generations; contribute to preventing all forms of malnutrition (i.e. undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, overweight and obesity) (Garnett, 2014); and support the preservation of biodiversity and planetary health. Sustainable healthy diets must combine all the dimensions of sustainability to avoid unintended consequences. The FAO and WHO have outlined the components of a sustainable, healthy diet. The outline divides these components into sections regarding health, environmental, and sociocultural aspects. Each component is also in line with current United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) ( ).

  • Starting early in life with breastfeeding and appropriate complementary feeding
  • A great variety of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and drinks
  • Emphasis on a plant-based diet: whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables
  • Including moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry, fish, and especially limiting red meat
  • Consuming primarily drinking water
  • Providing adequate energy and nutrients, rather than not reaching or exceeding needs
  • Consuming minimal amounts of pathogens, toxins, and other disease agents through food
  • Maintaining greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and chemical pollution targets • Preserving biodiversity of crop, livestock, forest-derived foods, genetic resources, and more by avoiding over farming, over hunting, and over fishing
  • Minimizing the use of antibiotics and hormones in food
  • Minimizing the use of plastics and plastic derivatives in food packaging
  • Reducing food loss and waste
  • Respecting local culture, culinary practices, and consumption patterns The three pillars of a sustainable diet

( ) Which steps to take as individuals wishing to achieve a healthy and sustainable diet might seem confusing at first. Despite the complexity, there are three changes that we can all make to achieve a more sustainable diet:

  • consume less – there is a global trend towards overconsumption, despite many around the world remaining hungry. Overconsumption contributes to an increase of overweight and obesity, while at the same time driving unnecessary demand for increased production of crop and livestock with the associated environmental impact (Ranganathan, J. & Vennard, 2016).
  • waste less – In Europe, an estimated 88 million tonnes of food is discarded every year. Food is wasted during all stages of the food chain, by producers, processors, retailers, and caterers (Stenmark et al., 2016). Producing food that is then thrown away represents an unnecessary waste of land, water, labour and energy, and futile contribution to GHGEs.
  • less animal-based, more plant-based – In general, producing animal-based foods is more resource-intensive than plant-based foods, and has a higher environmental impact (such as land use, fresh water consumption and CO2 emissions per tonne of protein consumed) (Ranganathan, J. & Vennard, 2016). Choosing more sustainable animal-based products such as poultry, sustainably-grown fish or insects, reducing the consumption of animal-based products such as meat, dairy and eggs in general, and incorporating more plant-based products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, are great steps towards a more sustainable diet.7 Diets high in plant-based foods have also been linked to a decreased risk of hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers (Craig, 2010).

Tip for healthy and sustainable diets are (Fig. Sustainable diets_tips) ( ):
  1. 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)
  2. Eat locally, when in season Locally-grown foods can be a sustainable choice, if we choose those that are in 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 fibre, 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.
  5. 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. Whole meal 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.
  6. 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. 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 and choose fish and seafood marked with a sustainability label from certified organisations.
  7. Eat dairy products in moderation While milk and dairy production has an important environmental impact, dairy products are an important source of protein, calcium and essential amino acids, and have been linked to reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, stroke, bowel cancer and type 2 diabetes.
  8. Avoid unnecessary packaging Food packaging, especially when made of non-recyclable materials can have a huge impact on the environment. We all can reduce the amount of packaged products we buy (think of bulk apples versus cling-film wrapped ones), or opt for materials that are biodegradable, fully recyclable, or made from recycled materials.
  9. Drink tap water In Europe, the standards of water quality and safety are high. Instead of buying bottled water, we can re-fill a reusable water bottle at the tap as many times as we want. Tap water costs a fraction of the price of bottled water and reduces our ecological footprint.

  1. FAO and WHO. Sustainable healthy diets – Guiding principles. Rome. 2019. “Dietary guidelines and sustainability”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Biesbroek, Sander; Kok, Frans J.; Tufford, Adele R.; et al. (2023).
  2. “Toward healthy and sustainable diets for the 21st century: Importance of sociocultural and economic considerations”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 120 (26): e2219272120. doi:10.1073/pnas.2219272120. PMC 10293822. PMID 37307436. Garnett T (April 2014).
  3. “What is a sustainable healthy diet? A discussion paper” (PDF). Food Climate Research Network. Ranganathan, J. & Vennard, D. Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. Working Papers (2016).
  4. Stenmark, A., Jensen, C., Quested, T. & Moates, G. Estimates of European food waste levels. Fusions (2016).
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization. Food wastage footprint & Climate Change. (2015). Craig, W. J. Nutrition Concerns and Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets. Nutr. Clin. Pract. 25, 613–620 (2010).