by Nutrition writer Ursula Arens

Dietitians are the leading profession in discussions on how food behaviours affect health, and increasingly they have also become involved in talks on how food behaviours affect the stability of ecological environments.

Health and sustainability can go hand in hand and there are a great many win-wins that can be achieved. Dietitians are in a strong position to combine healthy eating messages and sustainable diet advice, supporting consumers to take action on both these issues of great importance.

The BDA position on sustainable food

In 2013, the BDA issued a position on sustainable food. There is much activity and debate in this fast-moving field, and in November 2017 BDA Council approved an expanded and updated policy statement on sustainable diets

The updated statement was prepared by a small working group of members, including some of those belonging to the BDA Public Health Specialist Group and is due for review in 2020. The document also provides references and further reading recommendations. In addition to the new policy statement, a supplementary toolkit on sustainable diets is currently being developed (providing practical guidance and specific food recommendations), and will be issued in mid to late 2018.

The basis for population-wide general balanced diet advice is the Eatwell Guide, which was updated two years ago by Public Health England from the previous Eatwell Plate in March 2016. Many aspects of the revised guide support the themes to consider environmental impacts of food choice.

What, and how much we eat directly affects what, and how much is produced. We therefore need to consume more ‘sustainable diets’ – diets that have lower environmental impacts and are healthier.” Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network, Oxford University

Environmental concern

In the revised guide, the ‘protein’ foods section was re-labelled ‘beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins’ with specific advice to eat more plant-sourced proteins, to ensure that fish consumed come from sustainable sources, and to eat less red and processed meat. The ‘fruits and vegetable’ and the ‘starchy’ foods sections of the guide were increased, and the size of the ‘dairy’ foods section was decreased. Further, guidance was given to support hydration through intakes of tap water and teas/coffee (rather than sugary packaged drinks).

The BDA policy statement on sustainable diets has sections on specific food groups and sets out some general issues in relation to specific nutrients (greater detail will be provided in the forthcoming toolkit). Conclusions support general principles set out in the current Eatwell Guide. Reducing meat intakes in favour of plant-based protein sources remains the single biggest way to improve dietary sustainability. Key messages to the consumer also need to be promoted as a development of the emerging science and of environmental needs, rather than a change in the fundamental advice of healthy diet.

This is an emerging area of knowledge for dietitians, and it will be important to balance nutritional and sustainability priorities, and to identify opportunities to improve both. Dietitians will need to consider the cultural and social norms in the UK, which might make moving to more sustainable diets challenging.

For example, eating insects as a source of protein is much talked about, but unlikely to become a significant component of most UK diets. But discussions about reducing animal-sourced protein foods are likely to become more common, and dietitians have a pivotal and diverse role to play (in research, education, and in public health guidance) to develop practices and policies.

Further, the particular needs of vulnerable sub-groups of the population, and of those in poor health, needs to be fully considered in the applications of sustainable diet principles.

Dietetics Today Articles