Sustainability is on everybody’s radar now, thanks to the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP26), which was held in Glasgow last month. COP26 is a global summit which brings together parties to accelerate action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change. In this article, Registered Dietitian Annina Whipp explores what healthcare professionals (HCPs) can do to support their patients in eating more sustainably.
Food consumption and our planet
The sustainability of the planet is severely impacted by our current food system¹ – which includes the production, distribution and our overall food consumption. Here are some statistics which provide food for thought:
- Food production contributes 15-30% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK; a significant contributor to global warming.²
- Livestock farming is one of the leading causes of deforestation, loss of biodiversity and soil and water pollution.³
- Food production accounts for 70% of all human water use.³
- Almost ten million tonnes of all food produced is wasted in the UK every year with the majority (71%) occurring at home.⁴
- 85% of UK fisheries are now exploited due to overfishing practices.⁵
A diet that includes more plant-based foods and fewer animal sourced foods is healthy, sustainable and good for both our health and the planet.⁶ In a recent report by the Vegan Society,⁷ one in four people have actively reduced their intake of animal products since 2020. The most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2020)⁸ also found that the mean consumption of red meat is decreasing amongst all age and gender groups.
Organisations within the health and food sector are encouraging us to think about sustainability when discussing nutrition with the general public and patients. In 2018, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) launched the ’One Blue Dot’ campaign,⁹ which provides a toolkit to help dietitians improve their understanding of environmentally sustainable diets and offer practical ways to discuss these with patients.
Additionally, the EAT-Lancet report was the first of its kind to define a healthy diet from a sustainable food system.¹⁰ Launched in January 2019, the project brought together 37 prominent academics, who proposed scientific targets for feeding a growing population whilst tackling health, sustainability and food waste.¹⁰ The report outlines specific actions that HCPs can take to contribute to transforming the way we eat.¹⁰,¹¹
Top tips for sustainable eating
When it comes to improving the future of our lives and the planet, every little helps. To help you to guide your patients in making small and sustainable dietary choices, we’ve put together some top tips, based on the BDA One Blue Dot Report and the EAT-Lancet Commission.
Red meat and poultry emit far higher GHG emissions in production compared with legumes, eggs and tofu.⁹ Red meat should therefore be limited to <70g per day alongside a modest consumption of poultry and eggs.⁹,¹¹ Protein sources should ideally come from sustainable meat and fish sources as well as beans, lentils and soya protein.⁹,¹¹
‘Meat-free Monday's’ are a popular global initiative to optimise plant-based protein intake. Reducing meat consumption can be gradually achieved, and it doesn’t necessarily mean giving up meat all together. For example, they could start by mixing mince beef with other sources of protein such as a tin of lentils or soya mince when making mince dishes such as shepherd’s pie or spaghetti bolognaise. Celebrity chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have written meat-free recipes proving that you don’t need to compromise on taste. Meat remains an expensive commodity, making the switch to legumes and pulses can feed a family at a much lower cost.¹²
Fruit and vegetables
Most people know that we should aim for five portions of fruits and vegetables daily. But an equally important message is to buy local and eat seasonally, where possible. For example, during November, seasonal foods include cauliflower, turnips, apples, pears and parsnips. Food in season is often cheaper because it’s bought when it’s in abundance and has not travelled a long distance. Did you know that air-freighted and pre-packaged produce have higher associated GHG emissions due to distance of travel as well as their plastic packaging?⁹,¹¹ For people with a small appetite, tinned and frozen produce can also help to reduce food waste
Dairy produce should be consumed in moderation, and some people may wish to use plant-based alternatives.⁹,¹¹ It is important to remind your patients to check that any dairy-alternative milks and yoghurts are fortified with calcium and iodine.⁹
Consuming sustainable fluids such as tap water, coffee and tea could have a big impact on GHG.⁹,¹¹ Interestingly, soft drinks and fruit juices are the third biggest contributors to our dietary GHG emissions (9-10%).⁹,¹¹
Sixty percent of food waste is avoidable.⁴ Food waste should be recycled where possible, taking advantage of food waste collection services or opportunities to create food compost⁹,¹¹ However, minimising food waste in the first place is far more cost effective; food leftovers can be incorporated into subsequent meals using recipe generators or they can be delivered to elderly neighbours in need of a hot meal using initiative such as the Food Train.
For people with chronic illness or in need of nutrition support, planning ahead is key for avoiding food waste. For example, making a weekly meal plan helps to ensure you only buy what you intend to eat. Batch cooking and freezing into portions can be also be an effective way of minimising food waste and provides a quick and easy meal when cooking is difficult. Sticking to a shopping list and only buying what is needed, are also great ways to ensure that the food in people’s fridges and cupboards is used, especially when appetite is poor.
Tackling climate change is something we should all be working together to achieve. As dietitians, we can help educate our patients about eating in a healthy and more sustainable way by incorporating environmentally sustainable advice in our practice. It is, however, important to continue to use your own clinical judgement and to involve the patient when making recommendations.⁹