Environmental sustainability should be inherent to dietary guidance, experts say

Environmental sustainability should be inherent to dietary guidance, whether working with individuals or groups about their dietary choices or in setting national dietary guidance, according to a position paper released by the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB) in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Improving the nutritional health of a population is a long-term goal that requires ensuring the long-term sustainability of the food system, the group states.

Beginning with a description of current environmental problems, the authors of the position paper discuss the challenges faced in meeting future food needs, as well as the recent science behind assessing the environmental impacts of foods and diets. In a subsequent section they cover sustainability, dietary guidance, and research. While there are various angles of sustainability to consider, the focus of this paper is on the environmental dimension of sustainability.

Based on the best science we have today, it is clear that current environmental problems, including global climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, water shortages, and water pollution, demand urgent attention, threaten long-term food security, and are in part caused by our current food choices and agricultural practices, according to Diego Rose, PhD, MPH, RD, lead author and faculty at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

"The position paper was motivated by the severity of current environmental problems, including global climate change," said Rose. "A number of studies have been published about the difficulty of getting to 2050 with an adequate worldwide food supply due to factors such as population increase and change in dietary habits."

The paper was also inspired by the information published in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's scientific report to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in 2015, which included a chapter dedicated to sustainability, said Rose.

“We wanted to pass this vital information along to others,” he said.

The authors make recommendations on dietary guidance policy, research, and nutrition education practice based on the evidence presented throughout the paper. In terms of dietary guidance, SNEB recommends that environmental sustainability considerations be included in future federal dietary guidance. Future guidelines should contain specific advice, such as consuming less ruminant animal foods in favor of other protein foods.

According to results from the American Climate Values Survey of 2014, about half of Americans might be disposed to dietary advice that food choice could affect the environment.

"In discussing dietary recommendations, nutritionists can discuss both the health and environmental impacts of food choices to promote behavior change among consumers," Rose said. "People want to know what to eat today, so it is incumbent on those of us who are knowledgeable about nutritional science and education techniques to provide the best advice, based on the available evidence to date."