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What are sustainable dietary guidelines?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are up for review. How should environmental sustainability be incorporated?

Why sustainable dietary guidelines?

Our current food system is being increasingly challenged to provide adequate, safe, diversified and nutrient-rich foods needed for healthy diets. Soil and water are being depleted, biodiversity is declining and food production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Globally the statistics on undernutrition are grim and have worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia and New Zealand experience overweight, obesity, overnutrition and diet-related diseases from eating patterns that favour excess energy and unhealthy foods. The United Nations (UN) general assembly declared 2016-2025 as the Decade of Action on Nutrition to eradicate malnutrition in all its forms (under and overnutrition) in all countries.

A primary commitment underpinning the development of sustainable dietary guidelines is The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which Australia and New Zealand are signatories. Several of the seventeen goals relate to national food policy and dietary guidelines:

2.Zero hunger (food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture)

3.Good health and wellbeing (promote wellbeing for all)

10.Reduced inequalities

11.Sustainable cities and communities (inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable)

12.Responsible consumption and production

13.Climate action (take urgent action to combat climate change)

14.Life below water (conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources)

15.Life on land (protect, restore and promote sustainable use of ecosystems)


What is a sustainable dietary pattern?

The Food Climate Research Network have identified characteristics of a diet with low environmental impact that is also consistent with good health:

  • Diverse range of foods
  • Balance between energy intake and energy needs
  • Based around minimally processed plant foods such as tubers, wholegrains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, especially less of those requiring rapid and energy-intensive transport
  • If meat is eaten, it is consumed in moderation and without waste (all animal parts consumed).
  • Dairy products or calcium-rich alternatives in moderation
  • Unsalted seeds and nuts
  • Small quantities of fish and aquatic products sourced from certified fisheries.
  • Very limited consumption of nutrient-poor foods high in fat, sugar or salt e.g. crisps, confectionery, sugary drinks
  • Healthy oils and fats
  • Tap water in preference to other drinks- particularly soft drinks

These are consistent with Australia and New Zealand’s current dietary guidelines, however the devil is in the detail. For example, how much meat, dairy and seafood should we recommend? How much discretionary food and drink should we recommend for fun and enjoyment (and how much is behaviourally realistic?)? The EAT-Lancet Commission report, Food in the Anthropocene provided quantitative recommendations in their modelling of a Planetary Health Diet based on the amount of food the world could produce within planetary boundaries and equitable global distribution of food. It could be said that this ‘one diet fits all’ approach can’t be applied directly to Australia. It is perhaps unsurprising the amounts of food groups recommended in the Planetary Health Diet are quite different to the amounts recommended based on nutrition in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

How we reconcile the nutrition-based recommended amounts derived from core food group dietary modelling with the sustainable amounts based on planetary boundaries in Australia and New Zealand remains an open question.

Bones of contention

Animal foods are a contentious issue in any discussion about food sustainability. Animal foods usually have a greater environmental impact than plant-based foods because they require more natural resource inputs such as land, water and feed, and produce problematic wastes such as methane emissions from ruminant animals. However, in return they provide nutrient-rich core foods (exceptions include discretionary foods such as processed meats). The environmental impact of animal foods depends on where and how it is grown, or in other words the livestock production system used. Using red meat as an example, the environmental impact of Australian production systems is relatively low, and New Zealand has a similar low-intensity production system.

In Australian research from the CSIRO, the impact of meat production was measured by ‘dietary cropland scarcity footprint’ and this was lower for fresh meats and alternatives than for discretionary foods (which had the highest impact of all). Dairy food and alternatives had the second lowest cropland scarcity footprint after vegetables. Contrary to common understanding that read meat is our biggest food sustainability problem, this research concludes that,

It is possible for Australians to meet current Australian Dietary Guidelines and remain within the cropland planetary boundary. However, this requires moderation of poultry and pork intake, with increased preference to seafood or other lean meats or foods of plant origin such as pulses or tofu.”

Seafood attracts a lot of adverse attention due to its environmental impacts, however like terrestrial animal production the impact of seafood production is context specific. Australia is a global top performer in managing local fisheries sustainably, yet Australia imports around 70% of the seafood consumed from countries with typically poorer sustainability performance.

Consuming seafood twice per week for health is consistent with the Planetary Health Diet. Unfortunately, Australians do not consume recommended amounts. An ideal scenario is increased seafood consumption using sustainable species, ideally local. This would require a significant change in consumer choices and an increase in local fish production.

Sustainable sourcing

Previous research has demonstrated that our current food production would have to change in order to produce the balance of foods recommended in the current dietary guidelines. For example, we would need to produce more fruits, vegetables and legumes. And we will need to import more food to support a growing population.

Australia and New Zealand are part of a global market and our producers export food to other countries earning valuable income, and we buy foods from other countries to increase their income. How do we reconcile our part in a globalised economy and our reciprocal role in feeding other nations while also enhancing sustainability, such as emphasising consuming locally produced food?

Food waste

The management of household food waste is of great importance to food sustainability but has not before been included in dietary guidelines. Food waste undermines food security, generates potent greenhouse gases in landfill and represents wasted resource inputs such as land, water, energy, fertiliser and labour. Adding advice to avoid food waste in revised dietary guidelines would appear to be a ‘no-brainer’.

How can we incorporate sustainability into dietary guidelines?

A primary resource to guide the development of dietary guidelines has been produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United nations (UN), and the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN). Plates, pyramids, planet – Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment gathers the efforts of countries that have taken the leap forward in incorporating sustainability into their national dietary guidelines at the time of publication in 2016: Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar. While they differ in some ways, their overall message is that a plant-based diet has advantages for both health and the environment.

Brazil is notable in also incorporating social and economic aspects:

  • Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company.
  • Develop, exercise and share cooking skills.
  • Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life.
  • Be wary of food advertising and marketing.

The authors also say sustainable dietary guidelines need to have clear guidance on:

  • Limiting meat consumption, appropriate to the context, including how to make changes that are appealing and accessible
  • The environmental benefits of limiting consumption of all foods
  • Food waste reduction
  • Which fruits and vegetables to seek out in preference to others (for example Sweden recommends root vegetable over salad vegetables; in Australia and New Zealand we could perhaps recommend locally grown produce over imported?)
  • Safe and energy efficient food preparation
  • Shopping
  • The place and value of food in our lives
  • Guidance for those wishing to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets

The Australian CSIRO research makes a slightly different conclusion about meat (see above in Bones of contention). They say it is the combined effect of the whole diet we need to examine and, as far as possible, diets should not limit healthy food choices and personal/cultural food preferences. They also suggest discretionary foods are a significant issue as measured by cropland scarcity and water scarcity. Another study found excessive consumption of discretionary foods—i.e., energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods high in saturated fat, added sugars and salt, and alcohol—contributes up to 36% of the water-scarcity impacts of the Australian diet. Lead author of both CSIRO studies Brad Ridoutt says, “most Australians could improve their diets be adhering to current dietary recommendations, eating nutritious foods according to energy needs and moderating portion sizes of discretionary foods.”

Rather than a major re-write of the Australian Dietary Guidelines, we actually need to stick to them.

The importance of government leadership

One of the main conclusions of Plates, pyramids, planet is that dietary guidelines need to be owned by the government- usually led by the ministry of health- and supported across government departments. They also need to be championed by more than one government agency and bring together a range of academic expertise including environmental science to address broader sustainability issues. They need to be ‘accessible but ambitious’ so as not to stretch people unrealistically.

Australia and the USA are mentioned as examples of countries that have previously tried to incorporate environmental sustainability into dietary guidelines but this did not eventuate due to lack of government support; many acknowledge this was due to lobbying by vested interests in the food sector. The challenge ahead is to work collaboratively to develop dietary guidelines that promote health, environmental stewardship and a viable and equitable food system.


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