top of page

What does "making sustainable food choices" mean?

The word “sustainable” is thrown around a lot these days, but what does “making sustainable food choices” actually mean? My definition is: choosing food which allows our environment, our society and our health to thrive, both today and in the future. Making sustainable food choices means choosing food which meets our needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.


Sustainable food choices for our environment

Sustainable, environment, nature

Nature and the environment is likely what you first think of in relation to sustainable food. It is well documented how our food systems impact our environment, for example through deforestation of virgin rainforest for agriculture(1) and agriculture-linked carbon emissions(2). Our choices influence farming practices, which affect biodiversity (the variety of plants, animals and fungi in our ecosystems), soil health, and our water systems. There is also a clear link between our fish eating habits and the demands on the complex and vital ecosystems in our oceans(3).


Some examples of good food choices for our environment are:

  • Choose organic foods. Organic is a legally protected label, requiring farms to sustain the health of soils, ecosystems and animals. Among many benefits, organic farms have been shown to have up to 35% more species richness and 55% more abundant wildlife(4), to create less soil and water pollution(5), and to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than non-organic farms(5).

  • Eat beans, peas and lentils, which have been shown to release 5-7 times less greenhouse gas compared with other crops, and actively contribute carbon and nitrogen into soil(6). This reduces the need for manufactured fertilisers which can kill beneficial soil microorganisms and cause water pollution.

Beans, peas, lentils, legumes, sustainable food


Sustainable food choices for our society


How our food choices affect our society is the least obvious link between our food choices and sustainability, and it probably isn’t top of your mind when browsing the supermarket shelves. But, food is an absolutely critical part of how our society functions, with the issues ranging from the very personal to the highly political, from individual to global.


Food culture and heritage, like individual family traditions, religious foods, and

regional or national dishes form a fundamental part of our communities. So do our individual and collective food skills like cooking, but also “system-level” skills like supply chain management, farming, trading and food distribution. Another component is the livelihoods, wages and working conditions of people who work in the food supply chain. And finally, the political issues of food security, affordability and accessibility; and the regulation of the huge industrial corporations selling the branded products in our supermarkets.


Some examples of good food choices for our society include:

  • Buy locally made products, ideally from small businesses or local, independent shops. Buying locally helps preserve and create local jobs, boosting the local economy and community(7).

  • Avoid products from multinational food and beverage companies (sometimes called Big Food) which have huge and concentrated market power(8). This means they can dictate where and what is grown, produced, marketed, and sold in food systems globally(9). They can use aggressive marketing to drive up demand and construct global supply chains to obtain cheap ingredients. Big Food sell mainly “ultra-processed foods” because these are most profitable, but these also create the highest cost to society due to the destruction of our ecosystems and health(9).

  • Share your family, religious or cultural recipes and food traditions with others, which is a great way to relax, have a bit of fun, and learn more about your friends and neighbours.

Sharing a meal, community, culture, heritage, sustainable eating

Sustainable food choices for our health


Sustainable food choices must support good health. This means ensuring we get the nutrients we need for a healthy body, to help us fight disease, and to support our physical wellbeing. Equally important is that our food choices are fun and give us joy, to support our happiness and mental wellbeing. Making sustainable food choices for health is about finding the recipes and ingredients that you love and that nourish your body.

Sustainable eating, healthy food, pancakes, joy

Some examples of good food choices for our health include:

  • Skip ingredients you can’t buy in a shop. If you read the back of the packet, make sure you actually know what all the ingredients are. Skip products with ingredients you couldn’t buy from a shop, like E150d, Disodium 5'-Ribonucleotide or Acidity Regulator, as these are good indicators of ultra-processed foods which are bad for us.

  • Eat lots of plants. Eating a wide variety of plants has many benefits, one of which is upping fibre intake. It has been shown that we should eat 30g of fibre a day, but on average we eat only 18g. Fibre (found in plants) improves the type, quality, and diversity of bacteria in your gut, which in turn contributes to improved immunity, mood, and better blood sugar control(10). It is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers(11).

Eat plants, plant based, fibre, gut, microbiome

The good news


If this all sounds overwhelming, I have some good news. Sustainable food choices usually complement each other: the same choices that are good for our environment can also be good for our health, our society, or both! And vice versa. It is a “virtuous circle”, just as our current, unsustainable food system is a “vicious circle”.


For example:

  • I said that eating peas, beans and lentils is good for the environment, but these are also fantastic for your health as they are high in protein and fibre, and extremely low in fat.

  • I said that buying locally made products is great for our society, but also, communities with a greater level of small businesses tend to have greater levels of population health(12). Local products are usually associated with more sustainable agricultural practices, and often have lower water and carbon footprints(12).

  • I said it’s a good idea to skip strange ingredients like Disodium 5'-Ribonucleotide, because these indicate the product is ultra-processed and bad for your health. Skipping these products is also good for society, as it’s usually damaging Big Food corporations that make ultra-processed products with weird ingredients.

I created the Sustainable Food Society to help everyone navigate these issues and begin making more sustainable food choices, starting from your current habits and priorities. In my next blog and Instagram posts, we’ll be exploring everything I’ve talked about in more detail; we’ll dive into the what, why, and how of sustainable food choices.


---


References:

  1. https://research.wri.org/gfr/forest-extent-indicators/deforestation-agriculture

  2. https://www.fao.org/3/cb3808en/cb3808en.pdf

  3. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing

  4. Stein-Bachinger, K., Gottwald, F., Haub, A. et al. To what extent does organic farming promote species richness and abundance in temperate climates? A review. Org. Agr. 11, 1–12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13165-020-00279-2

  5. Reganold, J., Wachter, J. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants 2, 15221 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2015.221

  6. Stagnari, F., Maggio, A., Galieni, A. et al. Multiple benefits of legumes for agriculture sustainability: an overview. Chem. Biol. Technol. Agric. 4, 2 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40538-016-0085-1

  7. https://sustaincase.com/the-benefits-of-buying-local/

  8. Stuckler, D., & Nestle, M. (2012). Big food, food systems, and global health. PLoS medicine, 9(6), e1001242. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242

  9. Seferidi, P., Scrinis, G., Huybrechts, I., Woods, J., Vineis, P., Millett, C., The neglected environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods, The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 4, Issue 10, (2020). https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30177-7

  10. P, N., & Joye, I. J. (2020). Dietary Fibre from Whole Grains and Their Benefits on Metabolic Health. Nutrients, 12(10), 3045. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12103045

  11. Reynolds, A., Mann, J., Cummings, J., Winter, N., Mete, E., Te Morenga, L., Carbohydrate quality and human health: a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, The Lancet, 393, 434-445, (2019). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31809-9

  12. Aldaya, M.M.; Ibañez, F.C.; Domínguez-Lacueva, P.; Murillo-Arbizu, M.T.; Rubio-Varas, M.; Soret, B.; Beriain, M.J. Indicators and Recommendations for Assessing Sustainable Healthy Diets. Foods 10, 999, (2021). https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10050999

0 comments

Kommentare


bottom of page