Nutritional health must not come at a food system sustainability cost, warns nutrition body

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09 Jan 2019 --- Environmental sustainability should be inherent to nutritional and dietary guidance, whether this is in reaching individuals or groups on their dietary choices or in terms of setting national dietary guidance at a federal level. This is the stance of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB), in a position paper published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Improving the nutritional health of a population must not come at the expense of the sustainability of the food system, the group warns.

The paper discusses the challenges faced in meeting future food needs, as well as the recent science behind assessing the environmental impacts of foods and diets. 

“In discussing dietary recommendations, nutritionists can discuss both the health and environmental impacts of food choices to promote behavior change among consumers,” says Dr. Diego Rose, of Tulane University, New Orleans, US, and lead author of the position paper.

“People want to know what to eat today, so it is incumbent on those of us who are knowledgeable about nutritional science and education techniques to provide the best advice, based on the available evidence to date,” he notes. 

Dr. Adrienne White of Maine University, who was the president of SNEB when this position paper was developed, believes that in order to implement the outlined dietary advice, nutrition educators need to have an interest in pursuing continuing education on the matter. 

“SNEB’s Sustainable Food Systems Division will be an important resource on environmental sustainability in dietary guidance,” he suggests. 

Click to Enlarge“Based on the best science we have today, current environmental problems demand urgent attention, threaten long-term food security, and are in part caused by our current food choices and agricultural practices,” says Rose. 

The issues Rose is referring to, include global climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, water shortages and water pollution. 

According to the authors, the paper was prompted by the severity of the existing environmental problems. 

“A number of studies have been published about the difficulty of getting to 2050 with an adequate worldwide food supply. This is due to factors such as population increase and change in dietary habits,” Rose says. 

The position paper was further inspired by the information published in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's scientific report to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in 2015. 

The report dedicated a chapter to sustainability and the authors believe that it is vital information that needs to be shared.

Based on the evidence presented in the paper, SNEB makes recommendations on dietary guidance policy, research and nutrition education practice. As far as dietary guidance is concerned, it recommends that environmental sustainability considerations be included in future federal dietary guidance. 

SNEB supports that future guidelines have to include specific advice, such as choosing to consume less animal protein, in favor of alternative protein sources. 

According to results from the American Climate Values Survey of 2014, about half of Americans might be disposed to dietary advice that could positively affect the environment.

The need to shift to more sustainable diets and food systems is increasingly evident. A recent University of Guelph study suggested that if nutritionists’ recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption were followed internationally, global agriculture production would fall short in feeding populations. In order to reach nutritionist’s recommendations by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, consumers need to eat less meat, and the agri-food sector has to produce more plant proteins.

In the same space, a study published in Nature Sustainability, this past September, suggested that shifting to a healthy diet is not only good for health but also saves a lot of precious fresh water. The study findings mention that when compared to existing diets, the amount of water required to produce our food could be reduced by between 11-35 percent for healthy diets containing meat, 33-55 percent for healthy pescetarian diets and 35-55 percent for healthy vegetarian diets.

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