Research is ongoing to identify healthy eating guidelines for sustainable diets that are beneficial for both personal and planetary health.
Food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) have been developed for more than 100 countries worldwide. FBDG identify the type and balance of foods to consume for a healthy diet with adequate nutrients and are communicated using visual graphics such as pots, plates and pyramids. While graphically different across countries, the basic message in all guidelines remains the same; higher consumption of fruit and vegetables and minimum consumption of calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods.
The food pyramid was first launched in Ireland as a visual graphic for healthy eating in 1993. Then, acid rain and air pollution were the environmental concerns of the day and the link between food consumption and its climatic impact had not yet become mainstream. Our climate and our food consumption are linked by the greenhouse gas emissions (or carbon footprint) associated with food production and consumption. Food production and consumption contributes towards approximately 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU. Hence, the dual challenge now exists to develop healthy eating recommendations, like the food pyramid, to ensure that both personal and planetary health can be achieved, which is also known as a sustainable diet.
Senior Research Officer Sinéad McCarthy says: “In order to address this challenge and to propose realistic and culturally appropriate solutions for a sustainable diet, we must examine our current dietary patterns from a health and an environmental perspective.” This can identify where changes can be made to achieve a sustainable diet that will benefit both personal and planetary health.
“As a part of an all-island research project ‘SuHe Guide’, and using data from the National Adult Nutrition Survey (NANS), our current food consumption patterns were evaluated to identify the health (level of compliance with guidelines) and planetary impact (GHG emissions) of our current consumption,” she says.
“The impact of improving compliance to guidelines that were not achieved was analysed to determine if achieving healthy eating guidelines (personal health) set out in the food pyramid would also be beneficial from a sustainability perspective (planetary health), thereby achieving the dual challenge.”
Change a little, change a lot
A comparison of the recommendations from the food pyramid with current eating patterns showed that consumption of both dairy and cereal/starchy foods aligns with the recommended intakes. However, the researchers noted that we far exceed the recommendation to consume sparingly and no more than twice per week for foods high in sugar/salt/fat, with an average daily consumption of 690g from this shelf generating GHG emissions of 1.8kg CO2/day.
We are consuming more than recommended from the protein shelf, with intake exceeding recommendations by approximately 90g. Consumption from this shelf generates 2.8kg CO2/day GHG emissions per day. The most important shelf on the pyramid is the bottom shelf of fruit and vegetables; we should be eating more than five portions a day and ideally seven portions. However, compliance was low with most people consuming just over two portions per day with a very low GHG emissions value of 0.15kg CO2/day.
“In order to achieve our healthy eating guidelines, our current treat consumption should be halved at least,” says Sinéad. While this does not meet with guidelines, it is an achievable reduction that will bring about both health benefits and a reduction in GHG emissions.
If the treats are replaced with three portions of fruit and veg followed by a reduction in meat intake by one portion per day, the healthiness of our diets can be increased and concurrently bring about a significant daily reduction of 1.6kg CO2/day in GHG emissions.
“This represents a 25% reduction in emissions with moderate and achievable changes to the familiar foods we currently consume,” concludes Sinéad. “A simple rebalance of what we currently consume will meet the dual challenge of personal and planetary health.”
6kg CO2/day: A saving of 1.6 kg CO2/day could be achieved if we consume meat within the guidelines, reduce treats and replace them with fruit and veg.
The SuHe Guide project, which is Food Based Dietary Guidelines for Sustainable and Healthy Lifestyles, is a collaborative research project including Queen’s University Belfast, University College Dublin and University College Cork. This is funded through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), Food Institutional Research Measure (FIRM), and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).
Marie Conway, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis, Rural Economy and Development Programme, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown.
Sinéad McCarthy, Senior Research Officer, Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis, Rural Economy and Development Programme, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown. Email: [email protected]
Read more from TResearch Autumn 2023