A recent study published in the journal Food Policy presented a framework to develop environmentally sustainable food-based dietary guidelines (SFBDGs).
Food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs) are essential for communicating healthy eating recommendations. So far, these guidelines have focused on meeting nutritional requirements and promoting health. Nonetheless, there is growing interest in guidance that could deliver health and environment sustainability goals at the same time.
Only a few guidelines provide advice on environmentally sustainable eating; where addressed, they are included as a secondary consideration. In the present study, researchers presented a framework to develop environmentally sustainable dietary guidelines, with equal consideration to nutritional goals and environmental boundaries. The proposed framework included five steps.
Study: From “good for people” to “good for people and planet” – Placing health and environment on equal footing when developing food-based dietary guidelines. Image Credit: Miha Creative / Shutterstock
Step one – Determination of average healthy diet and healthy diet criteria
The first task would be determining the average healthy diet for a given population by building upon nutrient recommendations or using available dietary guidelines or archetype diets. Archetype diets are those proven to be linked to positive health outcomes or those modeled to result in desirable outcomes.
The next task would be establishing quantitative criteria for healthy diets by identifying food group recommendations or using thresholds for vital nutrients linked to preventing non-communicable diseases. The final task would be to ensure that the average healthy diet meets the criteria of a healthy diet.
Step two – Identification of environmental aspects and setting boundaries
This step includes four core tasks. First, relevant environmental factors to be considered when designing SFBDGs should be identified through literature reviews, local environmental challenges, and expert knowledge. It is essential for countries with food imports to account for the outsourced impact of national consumption patterns.
Second, an acceptable level of impact for these environmental factors should be determined. Third, a target year by which the chosen impact level is to be achieved should be established. Fourth, the mitigation potential from supply-side improvements and waste reductions should be accounted for. These tasks are inherently normative and should involve stakeholder consultations.
Step three – Identification of systemic effects and sustainability aspects.
Some environmental aspects are difficult to be captured using current data and methods, including seafood sourcing from sustainable stocks. In addition, various inherent couplings in food production need to be considered. Some couplings include those between meat and offal or dairy and beef. Dairy/offal production cannot be isolated from beef/meat production.
Therefore, recommending dairy with low/no red meat consumption is resource inefficient. Relevant systemic effects and additional critical aspects should be identified through an inclusive stakeholder process. This step should be restricted to identifying aspects directly linked to food choices, and other aspects like job creation, profitability, and labor conditions should not be introduced.
Although critical for overall societal sustainability, these other aspects could be better addressed with separate policy instruments, given their weak relation to consumption patterns. For instance, concern for migrant berry pickers’ livelihood cannot be handled well in dietary guidelines but by regulating working conditions.
Step four – Modifications in the average healthy diet for environmental goals
Diets should be modified to remain within environmental limits using different multi-criteria methods. A step-wise simulation approach could be applied to iteratively adjust the average healthy diet from step one for improved environmental outcomes. This approach involves four core tasks. First, the environmental performance of diets from step one should be estimated and benchmarked against the boundaries identified in step two.
Second, the average diet should be adjusted to lower environmental pressures where boundaries are transgressed. Third, the healthy diet analysis should be re-performed to ensure that the introduced dietary changes still lead to a healthy diet. The fourth task involves resolving trade-offs between nutritional and environmental goals.
Step five – Formulation of guidelines
This step involves translating the earlier steps into verbal, written, or visual guidance so that individuals/groups can understand and implement them. This should be accomplished through a multi-stakeholder process. Public and retailer members should be involved in testing if the guidelines are interpretable.
In summary, the study provided a five-step framework for developing SFBDGs by equally placing the considerations of healthy eating and environmental sustainability. Thus, these guidelines could be a tool to help achieve national health and environmental policy objectives. Stakeholder involvement is essential in policy development transparently and inclusively. The SFBDG forms the basis for developing additional policy instruments to transform diets in a more healthy and sustainable direction.