Many people around the world do not have access to safe, affordable healthy diets. As a result, malnutrition is a problem of global proportion. One-in-three individuals is currently affected by at least one form of malnutrition, such as hunger, stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and/or obesity. While the causes of malnutrition around the world are complex, unhealthy diets are the main contributors. Changing these diets is challenging, as drivers to changing diets are numerous and include urbanization, globalization of agricultural markets and trade, incomes, supermarket penetration and mass food marketing. Thus, to improve diets, the entire food system must be considered.
At the same time, food systems are a leading cause of environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources. Currently, food systems are responsible for 20-35% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are a major driver of land conversion, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. With a growing world population, these environmental pressures and impacts do not make current food systems sustainable. In their most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that ‘Consumption of healthy and sustainable diets presents major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions from food systems and improving health outcomes’. Combining health and sustainability thus provides a win-win situation.
Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly organized an international expert consultation on sustainable healthy diets. Thirty-three experts representing low, middle and high-income countries participated in the consultation. The objective of the meeting was to develop guiding principles around what constitutes sustainable healthy diets. The guiding principles are food based, and take into account nutrient recommendations while considering environmental, social/cultural and economic sustainability.
Guiding principles of sustainable healthy diets
Sustainable healthy diets…
- Start early in life with early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, and continued breastfeeding until two years and beyond, combined with appropriate complementary feeding.
- Are based on a great variety of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, balanced across food groups, while restricting highly processed food and drink products.
- Include wholegrains, legumes, nuts and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Can include moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish; and small amounts of red meat.
- Include safe and clean drinking water as the fluid of choice.
- Are adequate (i.e. reaching but not exceeding needs) in energy and nutrients for growth and development, and to meet the needs for an active and healthy life across the lifecycle.
- Are consistent with WHO guidelines to reduce the risk of diet related NCDs, and ensure health and wellbeing for the general population.
- Contain minimal levels, or none if possible, of pathogens, toxins and other agents that can cause foodborne disease.
- Maintain GHG emissions, water and land use, nitrogen and phosphorus application and chemical pollution within set targets.
- Preserve biodiversity, including that of crops, livestock, forest-derived foods and aquatic genetic resources, and avoid overfishing and overhunting.
- Minimize the use of antibiotics and hormones in food production.
- Minimize the use of plastics and derivatives in food packaging.
- Reduce food loss and waste.
- Are built on and respect local culture, culinary practices, knowledge and consumption patterns, and values on the way food is sourced, produced and consumed.
- Are accessible and desirable.
- Avoid adverse gender-related impacts, especially with regard to time allocation (e.g. for buying and preparing food, water and fuel acquisition).
The guiding principles are meant to be further translated into clear, non-technical information and messaging to be used by governments and other actors in policy-making and communications. The guidelines take a holistic approach to diets; they consider international nutrition recommendations; the environmental cost of food production and consumption; and the adaptability to local social, cultural and economic contexts. Countries should decide on the trade-offs according to their situations and goals.