Why should you read this chapter?

Eating patterns (or diets) are an important point of interconnection in food systems between human health and wider environmental impacts. Shifts in how people consume towards sustainable health eating patterns can bring multiple benefits. And when they are undertaken by whole populations, their overall effects can be considerable.

Although there is much we still don’t know, the broad trends of what sustainable health eating patterns look like are known well enough to take action today. However, this presents another difficult challenge: how can eating patterns (at the individual and population scale) be shifted towards those that are healthier and more sustainable?

Understanding this problem and its potential solutions provides a useful primer on the way in which consumption in food systems takes place through a combination of human choices (whether conscious or not), and is influenced by the wider contextual environment that actively constrains and influences these choices.

The chapter addresses the following:

  • What influences what we eat and what food we buy? What are consumers’ priorities when making purchasing decisions?
  • How could a knowledge of these influences inform practice on how to shift diets in more healthy and sustainable directions?
  • What might be the unintended effects of shifting diets?

Key points

  • The general characteristics of a sustainable and healthy eating pattern are known, but what change this implies at the individual level is far more complex. Lower impact eating can be consistent with good health, but not necessarily; there are multiple possible win-win, lose-lose, win-lose and lose-win dietary patterns.
  • Dietary changes are needed globally for health and/or sustainability, but the context and direction of these changes is very different between low-income and higher-income countries, as well as between rich and poor within such countries.
  • To shift consumption patterns we need to have a sense of why people do what they do and therefore what interventions would help to change those practices.
  • People’s consumption patterns are shaped by multiple influences: biological, psychological, societal, technological, regulatory and economic. A number of conceptual models have been drawn to try and illustrate the role of these influences.
  • Different typologies of interventions can be categorised: fiscal measures; regulatory and trade interventions; voluntary or industry self regulatory approaches; interventions focusing on the context, defaults and norms of consumption; and information and education raising approaches, or community initiatives.
  • Unintended consequences of measures aimed at shifting diets in more healthy and/or sustainable directions are possible, and will need to be carefully thought through, monitored, and addressed. How food substitutions (what people switch their consumption from and two) differ between people, is key.
  • Poorly designed meat taxes, for example, could disproportionately affect the consumption lower-income brackets, and may lead people to people eating the same amount of lower quality (and often less healthy, and in some respects, more impactful) meat; or more salty, sugary processed foods, rather than substituting for a healthy mix of plant-based foods.
  • There is no one simple measure that can successfully shift diets at the national or global scale. Rather, a constellation of different approaches and strategies, operating across scales and supply chains, and targeted at different people and organisations will be required.
  • Much more research into dietary shifts is needed, looking at a whole range of mechanisms and their potential effects on health, the environment, and at other issues such as social equity. Although there is uncertainty, enough is known to take action today.


Suggested citation

Garnett, T., & Finch, J. (2016). What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions? (Foodsource: chapters). Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford.

Written by

Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Contributing authors

Jess Finch, Food Climate Research Network, Warwick University; 

Edited by

Samuel Lee-Gammage, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Marie Persson, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Reviewed by

Professor Mike Hamm, Michigan State University;  

Dr Elin Röös, Swedish Agricultural University;  

Dr Peter Scarborough, University of Oxford;

Dr Tim Hess, Cranfield University;  

Professor Tim Key, University of Oxford;

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds;  

Professor David Little, University of Stirling;  

Professor Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen;

Mara Galeano Carraro.

Reviewing does not constitute an endorsement. Final editorial decisions, including any remaining inaccuracies and errors, are the sole responsibility of the Food Climate Research Network.

Funded by

The production of this chapter was enabled by funding from the following sources:

The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation;

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food;

The Wellcome Trust;

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation;

Jam Today;

Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP);

The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University.

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