Healthy Diet And Sustainable Diets For The 21st Century

What we choose to eat has a huge impact, not only on our health but also on the health of the planet. The world's leading scientists are highlighting the increasing impact of food on the environment and how it contributes to climate change[i].

How does the food we eat effect climate change and ill health?

Food production (including intensively rearing animals, food processing and distribution) is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming, according to a recent study by University of Oxford.[ii]

Growing feed for intensively reared animals also uses precious water and land resources.

A diet that contains a lot of dairy products and meat tends to be high in calories and saturated fat and is also linked to high rates of chronic disease.

Which foods have the greatest impact on the environment?

Meat and other animal products such as cheese, eggs and milk are responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink.

At the beginning of the last century two-thirds of the protein in our diet came from plant foods. By 1985 more than two-thirds of our protein came from animals, primarily beef cattle. Global meat consumption is set to raise over the next few years.

Research shows the environmental impact of different foods varies hugely. Of all the products analysed in the Oxford study, beef and lamb were found to have by far the most damaging effect on the environment.

Which foods have the least impact on the environment?

Eating fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and cereals has less impact on the environment, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, than animals raised for human consumption.

Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual's carbon footprint from food by two-thirds, according to the Oxford study.

For example, if I eat a portion of oats daily it contributes 38kg to my annual greenhouse gas emissions whilst eating a small portion of chicken three to five times a week would contribute 284kg[iii].

What changes do we need to make to eat in a more sustainable way?

Eat less meat and animal products

The Lancet reporti does not insist everyone become a vegetarian or vegan, but it does set as a goal that people limit consumption of red meat to one 100g portion a week. You can be somewhat more generous with poultry and fish, which are better for your health and less damaging to the earth.

Following a healthy plant based diet would also reduce the EU’s water footprint by 23%.

Eat more plants

Plants contain proteins that can meet the requirements of the human body. Wholegrain cereals, vegetables, beans and nuts add choice, flavour and texture to our diets and have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy food.

Several top chefs, like Jamie Oliver, are moving away from meat heavy to plant based cooking.

Eat a more diverse diet

Modern farming methods mean 75% of the world’s food comes from just twelve plants and five animal species. This lack of diversity in our food supply makes it much more vulnerable to climate change, pests and diseases. And it means there is less space for our bees and other wildlife.

Eat fish regularly

Eating fish from sustainable sources is not only good for health but also for the environment.

Reduce household food waste

When we throw away food we are throwing away natural resources and money. The average household wastes around 30% of the food it buys.

The future of food

Tackling climate change is also important for making sure the world is able to produce enough food – this is known as global food security. Extreme weather caused by climate change, rising sea levels, desertification and increased pressure from pests and disease, all threaten our ability to feed ourselves.

Further information

[i] Summary of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems. 2019.

[ii] Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987–992.


[iii] BBC Climate change food calculator

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