Healthy eating advice must be healthy for the planet too

In a new briefing published today, Eating Better and Medact are calling for more to be done to promote the key health and sustainability message to reduce meat and dairy consumption and eat more plant-based foods. Shifting towards predominantly plant-based diets needs to be a priority among high-consuming countries, such as the UK, in order to meet the international Paris agreement on climate change to keep global temperature rise below 20C. The health-case for promoting diets that are richer in plant foods is solid, and is increasingly finding space in the food guidelines of EU countries. For this reason, we call on governments and health professionals to do more to help change diets towards more sustainable eating.


“For the health community, food is no longer simply an issue of healthy diets. It is also a public health issue concerned with climate change and environmental health” says Professor David McCoy, Director of Medact. “The food on our plates not only impacts our individual health, but also has significant implications for the health of the planet upon which human health is reliant, and for our ability to feed current and future generations equitably.”

Several countries around the world have begun to incorporate elements of sustainability into their dietary guidelines. In countries where meat production and eating traditions are strong, scientists have been making the case for diets which contain less of it. Yet in an analysis of national dietary guidelines, Medact and Eating Better found that a number of other countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have gone further than the UK’s Eatwell Guide in promoting sustainability messaging in their national dietary guidelines. 

Overall, the Eatwell Guide does provide some limited sustainability messaging, and a review by the Carbon Trust indicates that the guidelines are measurably more sustainable than current diets. However, specific recommendations for different foods are not part of the UK guidelines – which uses the terms ‘some’, ‘more’ and ‘less’, rather than quantified amounts. For example, while the UK guidance does provide an overall message to consume less meat, it does not provide specific guidance around consumption of different meat or dairy products (except for limiting red and processed meat to 70 grams per day). Sweden and Holland both recommend limiting overall meat consumption to 500 grams per week, which is just over half the current average UK male consumption (900 grams), and less than the average female consumption (620 grams). Sweden, Holland and Germany also provide quantified guidance on dairy products.




There are signs that the time is ripe for government agencies to be more explicit in promoting the sustainability benefits of healthy plant-rich diets. In a new government-funded UK survey, two thirds (66%) of adults agreed that human behaviour is causing climate change, and also agreed that we could significantly reduce the impacts of climate change if we all made changes to our diets. Furthermore 65% of all adults surveyed also said they would like to receive more information on the link between climate change and the food system. The growing numbers of flexitarians, until recently no more than a forecast, are now driving change in the food industry, and interest in campaigns such as vegcurious speak of the growing ranks of people for whom the idea of eating lighter, plant rich diet makes sense. 


“It is vital that steps are taken to shift eating patterns towards ones that are healthier for both people and the planet,” says Sue Dibb of Eating Better, “The government needs to go beyond its current focus on reducing sugar, and do more to work with supermarkets and food companies to ensure our diets are not only healthier but also more sustainable.”


Medact and Eating Better are calling for: 


1.     DEFRA and other relevant government departments (including the devolved administrations) to endorse the Eatwell Guide recently updated by Public Health England, and ensure that it informs the future development of food, farming, fishery and climate change policies, including public and private food procurement standards.
2.     Public Health England and other relevant government departments to develop strategies to enable behaviour change towards healthy and sustainable eating patterns.
3.     Clearer messaging about the links between diets, health and sustainability to be included in the Eatwell Guide and its associated advice. This should enable the general public, health professionals, consumer organisations and those working in the food sector to understand and pay due consideration to the impact of our food choices on the environment.
4.     Public Health England to develop a broader, more rigorous and regular dietary guidelines review process (e.g. on a five-year cycle) to ensure guidance is updated on the basis of the strongest evidence available. 


Read our full briefing: A Healthy and Sustainable Food Future: Policy recommendations to embed sustainability in the Eatwell Guide and wider UK food policy.


Our press release can be found here.


Elena Salazar is Campaigns and Communications Associate at Eating Better.


Featured images:

Artichokes, by Stijn Nieuwendijk (CC BY-NC_ND 2.0)

Recommendation 1.2, by Medact. Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace, used with permission. 


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