What are healthy, sustainable diets?

The good news is that by and large a healthy diet is also better for the environment and therefore more sustainable. 

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) defines sustainable diets as: 

“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.”

But what does that mean in practice? Eating Better was one of the organisations involved in creating Principles of Healthy and Sustainable Eating Patterns which sets out what this means.

To put this even more simply WWF’s Livewell principles for healthy low carbon eating recommend we:

  • Eat more plants - enjoy fruit and veg 
  • Waste less food - up to 30% of what is brought home is waste
  • Eat less meat - Meat, be it red or white, can be a tasty complement rather than just a centre piece of a good meal
  • Eat less processed food - as they tend to be more resource intensive to produce and often contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt
  • Eat certified food - buy food that meets a credible certified standard - like MSC for fish or RSPCA Freedom Food for meat and eggs.

US food writer, Michael Pollan, puts it even more simply: eat food, not too much, mainly plants.

This visual Double Pyramid representation of healthy, sustainable diets from the Barilla Institute in Italy also shows the synergies between eating better for health and for the environment.

Barilla Institute Double Pyramid


Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming has produced a Guide to Sustainable Food for people and businesses. Its seven principles of sustainable food are:

1.      Aiming to be waste-free. Reducing food waste (and packaging) saves the energy, effort and natural resources used to produce and dispose of it, as well as money.

2.      Eating better, and less, meat and dairy produce. Consuming more vegetables and fruit, grains and pulses, and smaller amounts of animal products produced to high-welfare and environmental standards helps reduce health risks and greenhouse gases.

3.      Buying local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food such as organic from local farmsThis benefits wildlife and the countryside, minimises the energy used in food production, transport and storage, and helps protect the local economy.

4.      Choosing Fairtrade-certified products. This scheme for food and drinks imported from poorer countries ensures a fair deal for disadvantaged producers.

5.      Selecting fish only from sustainable sources, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Future generations will be able to eat fish and seafood if we act now to protect our rivers and seas and the creatures living there.

6.      Getting the balance right. We need to cut down on sugar, salt and fat, and most of us want to avoid questionable ingredients and processes such as genetic modification (GM) and some additives.

7.      Growing our own, and buying the rest from a wide range of outlets. Fresh out of the garden or allotment is unbeatable, and a vibrant mix of local markets, small shops, cafés, and other retailers provides choice, variety and good livelihoods.


Eating Better is calling for the UK governments to develop guidelines for healthy sustainable diets and for food businesses to help achieve a change in food consumption patterns. See our briefing: A Healthy and Sustainable Food Future. 

Many official bodies in European countries, including the NetherlandsFranceGermany and Sweden have produced their own guidelines.