What is a Sustainable Diet, and How Do We Talk About It?

What is a Sustainable Diet, and How Do We Talk About It?

August 7, 2019
Shari Steinbach

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor

A growing number of consumers are now looking at their diet with not personal health in mind, but also on how their food choices may impact environmental health. With recent media attention on this issue and the release of the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission report, consumer interest in this topic will likely increase. But what does a sustainable diet truly mean? According to the DGAC, 2015, a sustainable diet is defined as a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations. The issue of sustainability involves a multitude of factors and it can be difficult, even for the experts, to scientifically prove which healthy dietary patterns actually align with environmental sustainability. Overall, studies generally recommend that an increased consumption of plant-based foods is associated with an estimated lower environmental impact, but most agree that a more environmentally sustainable diet can be achieved without excluding any food groups. Here are some considerations for talking about this complex issue in your role as a retail dietitian:

  • Remember that people have different diets and motivations regarding food consumption. There is no uniform sustainable diet that fits all.
  • Use nutrition as a first priority. With a high percentage of individuals being overweight, many can benefit from reducing calorie intake and increasing their consumption of more plants, especially fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Discuss the positive impact that reducing food waste has on the environment and share shopping, storage and meal planning tips to help shoppers reduce waste, eat healthier and save money. 
  • Talk about how animal products do not have to be eliminated from a healthful, sustainable diet and address customer inquiries regarding animal welfare and the positive environmental strides taking place in animal agriculture. Many commodity groups have great resources to share on this topic. For example, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association provides information and infographics on ranching practices and beef in a sustainable diet.
  • Discuss the different dietary roles that animal and plant foods play in a healthy diet and help consumers understand that are not perfect substitutes for each other.
  • Share your retailer’s efforts to create a more sustainable food system and environment - sustainable seafood programs, waste reduction efforts, purchasing guidelines, etc.
  • As always, use science-based, non-biased information when discussing various diets and making recommendations that meet the lifestyle needs of your shoppers.