Sustainable Eating – Part 1 ‘Getting Started’

For years now we have been recycling our household waste, separating our tin cans from our cereal boxes, because we know that we have to start taking care of our big blue planet. Most of us are trying to reduce our carbon footprint somehow or other, but are we extending this to the food we eat? How many of us are thinking about sustainability when we are picking up dinner or making our shopping list? And what does sustainable eating really mean? 

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations describes a sustainable diet as one which has ‘low environmental impact’ and is ‘protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems’ as well as being ‘culturally acceptable, economically fair and affordable’ and ‘nutritionally adequate’ (1). Currently the way we produce food is responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions, this includes the whole journey from the farmyard to your plate (2). At the rate that our global population is growing, from 7 billion people today to a predicted excess of 9 billion by 2050 (3), we simply can’t keep going on as we are. We would need 3 planets to provide the amount of land, water and energy needed to keep up our current food production. Yes, it’s simply impossible!

Not only does a sustainable diet need to be environmentally friendly but it has to be healthy, nutritionally adequate and balanced. In a country where we have no problem with access to food we are still facing the issues of both under- and over-consumption, statistics show that 60% of the UK population are classified as overweight or obese (3). Despite our overwhelming choice of food, many people are lacking in vitamins and minerals.

Are eating the wrong foods for not only our health but also for our environment?

What is a healthy and sustainable diet?

As a dietitian I am used to using The Eatwell Guide as a tool to represent healthy and balanced eating for the general population, not for those who need to follow a special diet. It was updated in March 2016 by Public Health England (PHE) and it is now encouraging us to make both healthy AND environmental friendly food choices (4).


Sustainable food is mentioned twice on the new guide!

5 Steps to get you started 

Here are 5 first steps you can do to begin making food choices that are good for both your health and the environment, as supported by the Eatwell Guide:

1. Eat EVEN MORE fruit and veg!
The new model has increased the fruit and vegetable section from 33% to 39% of our total intake. It is generally accepted now that moving towards a more plant-based diet is also more sustainable. It doesn’t mean that we all have to become vegan but we could all be eating more greens! The recommended 5 portions of fruit and veg still is in play but really this is a minimum, you don’t have to stop there!
Sustainable eating needs to be affordable too, so eating seasonal fruits and veg can make it cheaper and guarantee variety.
You don’t always have to buy fresh, as frozen, dried and tinned fruit and vegetables all count too. If you like your smoothies then that can be a great way to use up fruit that is getting old, either blitzing it up straight away or freeze it to use later, avoiding food waste. My freezer is full of chopped bananas ready to go! Just remember that only one 150ml glass of smoothie counts towards your 5 a day. For more ideas on how to increase your fruit and veg intake check out tips on the BDA Food Fact Sheet.

2. Try plant-based dairy alternatives.
Plant based dairy alternatives are encouraged as a more sustainable choice than traditional cows milk. Cows milk is still very nutritious and can be included as part of a balanced diet, but maybe its time for another stroll down the fridge aisle in the supermarket to try something new for a change. Its all about variety!
There are plenty of options to appeal to all taste buds including milk made from soya, almonds, coconut, rice and oats. Some are creamier than others and some varieties, like soya, come sweetened or unsweetened, there really is a whole range to try.

Be sure to choose a brand that is fortified with calcium. The daily recommended calcium intake for adults aged 19-64 is 700mg* per day and dairy products, either animal or plant based, are important to help meet this. You can also look to other non-dairy sources of calcium, for example green leafy veg, almonds or beans. PHE has reduced the dairy section from 15% to 8% in the new Eatwell Guide to encourage consumption of more sustainable, non-dairy foods as a source of calcium.

3. Pulses for protein

We all know we need to eat less processed meat but how do we feel about eating less meat overall? The new guideline places less emphasis on protein from meat and promotes other protein sources such as beans, lentils, eggs and pulses, showing support for more sustainable foods with a lower environmental impact.

There are the other health benefits of eating less red meat too, primarily reducing the risk of bowel cancer.
However, you don’t need to become vegetarian to have a planet-friendly diet, and that certainly isn’t what PHE is advising, but you can start to include some meat-free meals as part of your routine. Experiment with new recipes as veggie dishes can taste amazing and tend to save pennies too.

4. Vary your fishies.
Two portions of sustainably sourced fish is recommended, one of which should be oily. Jamie Oliver spoke about this brilliantly on his recent series Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast’s where he promoted some less popular varieties of fish to encourage us to branch away from our beloved cod and salmon!
Examples of some less familiar fish that is definitely worth a try include mackerel, coley, hake, trout, sardine and halibut (5).
Look out for ‘ecolabels’ in the supermarket which shows you that your fish is caught with good fisheries.

5. Less ‘junk food’
High fat and sugar foods are now outside of the main model which is a positive step to address the over-consumption of ‘junk foods’. One train of thought is that the environmental resources used to produce these foods could be seen as being wasted. Its an interesting thought that eating ‘junk food’ is not only bad for our bodies but also for the environment. We all need to eat the occasional doughnut (yes, dietitians do eat doughnuts!) but it should be a treat and not part of our daily diet.

In Summary

To eat in an environmentally friendly way you can:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables! Try to include them at every meal time.
  2. Include some plant-based dairy alternatives as part of your balanced diet.
  3. Increase your protein intake from non-meat sources like pulses, beans and lentils.
  4. Aim for two portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, but try some which are less familiar.
  5. Eating less junk food is good for your health and for the health of your planet!

I hope this has given you some interesting ideas. Coming soon: Sustainable Eating Part 2 – ‘Waste not, Want not!’


*for the general population of 19-64 years . Certain population groups will have different recommended targets.


Written by Lilia Malcolm, April 2017


1. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity. Directions and solutions for policy, research and Action. 2010

2. British Nutrition Foundation. Healthy, Sustainable Diets – facts and figures

3. Public Health England website. UK and Ireland prevalence and trends. (figures from Health Survey for England 2015)

4. Public Health England. The Eatwell Guide. March 2016

5. Marine Conservation Society.


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