10.1 Review: what is a sustainable and healthy eating pattern (SHEP)?

  • The FAO describes the broad characteristics of sustainable and healthy eating patterns
  • There is no one single dietary pattern that is definitively healthy and sustainable
  • There are many dimensions of sustainability to consider
  • Metrics are needed to assess how diets perform across these dimensions
  • What SHEPs look like ‘on the plate’ will depend upon on context and need.

10.1.1 The FAO describes the broad characteristics of sustainable and healthy eating patterns.

FAO definition of sustainable diets

Sustainable diets are “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.”

This definition is very comprehensive but:

  • It is not clear what such a diet might look like ‘on a plate’
  • It is not yet clear what combination of metrics could be used to assess whether a diet is sustainable
  • There is therefore a need for metrics to assess how a diet performs across a range of sustainability indicators.

The FAO definition encompasses:

  • Nutrition and health
  • Biodiversity protection
  • Optimisation of natural and human resources
  • Affordability and availability
  • Cultural relevance

This implies that SHEPs should provide the required energy and nutritional content (see Chapter 7 for more on the links between food and health), not negatively impact biodiversity (for example impacts such as deforestation and negative land-use consequences, overexploitation of marine biodiversity – see Chapter 5), optimise natural resources (for example, optimal food production without causing unacceptable environmental damage – see Chapter 4) and human resources (for example, respect working lives of those whose livelihoods depend on food systems), be affordable and available (see Chapters 4 and Chapter 7 for more on food security) and culturally relevant.

An important question here is: How do we know what this looks like in reality? This chapter discusses the research base and evidence pointing towards what SHEPs might look like in reality.

10.1.2 Lower impact eating patterns can be consistent with good health…

Lower impact eating patterns can be consistent with good health

Given the caveats discussed in Chapter 9, a lower environmental impact diet that is also healthy might look like this:

  • Sufficient calories to meet energy needs and nutrient diversity
  • Based around tubers, whole grains, fruit and vegetables (mainly field grown, resistance to spoilage, and not requiring energy-intensive transport).
  • Meat eaten sparingly, if at all, and all parts consumed.

– Includes offal (which is generally nutrient rich) but may also include fattier cuts – since overall meat intakes are very reduced overall dietary quality does not suffer unduly. 

  • Dairy products in moderation or replaced with fortified plant-based alternatives
  • Unsalted seeds and nuts
  • Small quantities of fish, from certified sources.
  • Very limited quantities of processed foods high in fats, sugars and salt.

Adapted from Garnett, T. (2014). Changing what we eat: A call for research & action on widespread adoption of sustainable healthy eating. Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford.

As the studies in Chapter 9 show, diets consisting of less food from livestock and more of the appropriate fruit and vegetables have lower environmental impacts and are consistent with good health. These diets have also been associated with reduced risk of certain negative health outcomes.

More research is needed to understand the characteristics of SHEPs for environmental impacts other than GHGs, such as the sustainability of water use, impact on biodiversity and so forth.

Additionally these general principles may not be applicable to all individuals in all parts of the world. In that sense, while we understand what SHEPs might look like, there is no single “ideal” SHEP.

10.1.3 …But not necessarily

Four possible categorisations of eating patterns

While there is scope for achieving major synergies, lower environmental impact eating patterns are not necessarily healthy or vice versa.

Win-wins, lose-wins and lose-loses are possible:

Win-lose scenario: unhealthy eating patterns can lead to undernutrition, but have low environmental impacts (as often seen in very low income countries: see Chapter 7).

Lose-win scenario: healthy eating patterns that include foods such as lean cuts of meat, greenhouse grown vegetables, airfreighted vegetables giving high environmental impacts (as sometimes seen in high income groups in developed countries).

Lose-lose scenario: unhealthy eating patterns leading to obesity and non communicable diseases that are high in meat products, energy dense foods and low in fruit and vegetables, giving rise to health problems and high environmental impacts (see Chapter 7 for more on obesity and non communicable diseases).

Win-win scenario: healthy eating patterns that include low volumes of meat and certified sustainable fish, high volumes of appropriate vegetables and legumes, giving positive health outcomes and lower environmental impacts. What combination is optimal and how this can be encouraged is not yet fully understood, although the general direction of travel will likely entail less meat, more vegetables and more whole grains and legumes.

10.1.4 The same principles apply in developing countries but in a different context.

For developing countries, the same principles apply, but the context is different

  • In practice the same principles apply for potential win-win SHEPs, although the direction of dietary change is different.
  • In high income countries people need to eat less overall, and less of the foods that have a high impact.
  • In low income countries, the nutrition transition has had both negative and positive impacts on nutrition. Over consumption and poor ‘Western’ style diets are now causing growing problems, even while large numbers remain hungry and undernourished.
  • Undernourished people need to consume not only more food but a greater diversity of foods (including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and animal products).
  • Those who consume “Western’ style diets in low income countries may need to consume less overall, and less of the foods that have a high impact
  • Policies are needed to ensure that the nutrition transition is positive, resulting in healthy outcomes, rather than in overconsumption.
  • More research is needed on SHEPs and transitions in developing countries.

For developing countries, the context changes although the same principles exist. We know what SHEPs broadly speaking might look like, and the challenge is how to make the transition towards this for those suffering from (a) undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency and (b) overconsumption and associated diseases, and of course those with healthy eating patterns that have high environmental impacts.

See Chapter 7 for more information on the nutrition transition in developing countries.