Is a sustainable diet a realistic goal in today’s world?

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To many of us affordable, healthy and environmentally friendly food seems a goal difficult to reach. But is it really? A French study provides some indications about how you can eat sustainably.

This study was conducted among almost 30,000 participants of the NutriNet cohort. Their intake of 17 food groups was evaluated with a food frequency questionnaire. Eight sustainability indicators were evaluated separately.

What is sustainable food?

According to the FAO’s definition from 2010, “sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts” which are “nutritionally adequate” and “economically fair and affordable”. The 8 sustainable diet indicators were thus developed based on these three ideas:

  • food-related greenhouse gas emissions
  • the energy required to produce food,
  • the surface area required for food production,
  • the percentage of organic food in the diet,
  • its energy density,
  • the probability of adequate nutrient intake,
  • the risk of excessive intake,
  • the percentage of the consumer’s budget allocated to food.

The study identified six different types of consumer profile. Three profiles (about half of all the individuals who were monitored) ate a diet with a low environmental impact on a daily basis. But only one of these consumer profiles, accounting for approximately 23% of the sample, achieved a good balance between all these sustainable diet indicators. Their diets on average emitted 36% less greenhouse gases, included 30% more organic food and their affordability was close to the average.

Fewer animal products, more plant-based foods

These individuals limited their dietary intake of red meat (- 58%), white meat (- 37%) and cheese (- 25%), choosing to eat more fruit (+ 15%) and vegetables (+ 15%) instead. They ate similar amounts of fish and legumes compared to the average of the overall sample.
This study therefore demonstrates that people’s diets rarely tick all the sustainability boxes in the current context of our food system. Some diets, however, are already more compatible with all the sustainability indicators that were selected for this study and should therefore be encouraged. The widest possible acceptance of these diets is also crucial however. Research is currently being conducted to evaluate these aspects, as a more sustainable diet also requires making lasting changes to one’s eating habits. Something that is not as impossible as it seems!

See our article on the same subject:: A balanced or a sustainable diet: either-or or both?

Seconda L. et al., Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 196, 2018, p. 1256-1265.