“Sustainable nutrition” is a trending health term that actually represents several different ideas. The discussions around nutritional sustainability, nutrition security, chronic diseases, diet quality, and access to food for global populations are building as we learn more about human physiology, form and function, and about the environmental impacts of the modern western lifestyle.
For the sake of this article, we will talk about “sustainable nutrition” both in terms of environmental sustainability, and as a balanced part of your long-term physical and mental health goals. We’ll talk about what you can do to make more environmentally sustainable food choices, as well as how to build a sustainable, nutritious diet that helps you move beyond “diet culture” and into a lifestyle that incorporates indulgence, mindfulness, moderation and balance.
What are sustainable diets?
Sustainability simply means the ability of a behavior, lifestyle or otherwise, to be continued indefinitely at the same rate.
In terms of your energy consumption, sustainable diets are those that provide balanced nutrition from a variety of nutrient-dense sources. Sustainable diets also consider food safety, long term health goals, minimal food waste, and other factors. Some of these other factors include seasonal availability and elements of the local ecosystem. For example, nutritious food that is eaten during its natural harvest season will be jam-packed with the micronutrients and antioxidants its seeds would use to germinate.
Sustainability is an important antidote to the consumption of so-called “diet culture”. Diets that ask you to eliminate a certain macro or micronutrient from your daily consumption are not sustainable. Unfortunately, these restrictive and unsustainable diets are often used in the fitness and diet spaces to get victims hooked on a program, diet, or brand persona that offers immediate health results. The problem is, these restrictive diets can be hard on the digestive organs and cannot be sustained for long periods without damaging the body and brain.
Break away from diet culture by incorporating a healthy balance of macro and micronutrients from a diverse rotation of seasonally harvested foods.
Sustainable diets that consider sustainable food production, the environmental impacts of a dietary choice, natural resources, the consumption of energy and energy availability are “environmentally-sustainable”. This means the diet is driven by minimizing waste and reducing pollution caused by the food supply chain and the delivery of foods. These diets often also consider nutritional sustainability, and do work to incorporate essential nutrients and a variety of nutrient-dense foods.
Why are sustainable food systems important for human health?
The environmental impacts and food safety hazards alone are enough to convince anyone to research more environmentally and gut-friendly diets. Individuals in “developed” nations who have access to more sustainable dietary selections can help add to the nutritional security of more disadvantaged populations worldwide. Environmentally and nutritionally sustainable diets can also help prevent chronic diseases by reducing the consumption of animal products and discouraging the availability of “wet markets”.
If leading economies fail to establish more sustainable food-supply chains and more energy efficient means of producing and transporting the food we eat, populations globally will suffer from food scarcity. Many populations are currently struggling to feed themselves due to depleted resources and more severe weather patterns caused by climate change. Not addressing these challenges now will mean the same eventual conditions for even the wealthiest nations. Nearly 1 in 3 people worldwide suffered form food scarcity in 2020.
How can I make more environmentally sustainable food choices?
Your sustainability strategy should consider what you’re able to contribute with the resources, time, and comforts you currently have. For example, maybe there’s a local grocery store but you drive to the next-closest grocery store because they have a bigger variety of produce. Instead, you could check your local farmer’s markets, local farms with produce stands, and visit the local grocery store more often.
You could replace your plastic waste with more durable, reusable bags. You could cut back on meat and dairy consumption, and enjoy improved health at the same time. Whatever you choose to do, choose one small change at a time, and work toward getting comfortable with that new behavior or choice before moving on to the next small goal. Here are some ways you can work toward big goals and set yourself up for success with healthier habits.
You should also consider your own talents, interests, resources, and the practicality of your choices. Try to envision your outcome in a best-case scenario, and consider the smaller steps you’d need to take to get there. Here are a few ideas to get started:
1. Shop Locally
Consider walking to your local grocery store or visiting smaller grocery stores as often as possible. Smaller stores are more likely to be locally owned, and often source products from local farmers and distributors. You can also ask your small store’s manager which products are locally sourced, and whether they’d be willing to connect with a local vendor you currently buy from. It may sound crazy, but assertive communication goes a long way and we are all considering ways we can contribute to reducing climate change.
2. Reduce Animal Product Consumption
Animals and their offspring are not products, they are individuals. While only 107 Billion people have ever lived in the history of Earth, Americans alone kill more than 25 million animals per day. We kill approximately 72 billion animals per year for food. 80 percent of our agricultural resources globally are used to raise the livestock we eat, yet that food only accounts for less than 20 percent of the world’s supply of calories. What this means is that we are farming animals for food in such a way that we are rapidly depleting environmental resources while failing to meet world nutritional needs. What's worse, about 26 percent of those "products" go directly to a landfill via the consumer. This means they're purchased, never prepared, and sent to a landfill to decompose. Every small reduction in animal product consumption we can make is absolutely crucial for planetary health and environmental sustainability.
3. Reduce Packaging
Nature packages many of its foods for us. Reduce single-use plastic consumption as much as possible with reusable grocery bags and reusable produce bags. You can also reduce plastic use in the products available to you by voting with your dollar. Refuse brands that overpackage foods in favor of those that can be selected and taken home without plastic waste. Be sure the foods you do bring home are in recyclable or compostable packaging (like cardboard without food residue or plastic waxes).
4. Make Fewer Trips
Travel to the grocery store less frequently. Be intentional about planning your meals in order to eliminate food waste and the need for additional grocery store runs. Make a physical (or digital) grocery list before you shop. Take inventory of what you need before you go, and don’t go shopping on an empty stomach.
5. Know Your Brands
Let’s be honest, the bulk of the environmental responsibility is on the corporations that create the bulk of the world’s pollution. American manufacturers and food distributors are a huge part of that carbon footprint. Hold brands accountable by interacting only with brands that align with your values. We don’t need flashy or excessive packaging. We need biodegradable materials, no additives, and clear recycling instructions on the package label. Get to know your food brands, distributors, and the materials and ingredients they use before you commit to them.
6. Compost Your Scraps
Don’t throw food waste in the trash! Compost your scraps for nutrient-dense soil fertilizer for your house plants and homegrown produce in a few months. You can buy compost bins for your yard or kitchen space with secure lids and agitator features. Or, you can use a clean barrel, trash can, or bin that you can cover and stir up from time to time. Don’t want to use your compost for plants? Toss it in the woods, a field, or create a dirt mound in a discrete corner of your outdoor space it’s fully decomposed. Learn more about composting here.
7. Regrow Your Scraps
Did you know that you can grow a second batch of produce from the scraps of many foods? These include celery stalks, lettuce heads, onions, and potatoes. Here are 20 foods you can regrow when you’re done with them.
8. Check Labels
Pay attention to ingredients, locations, warnings, disclaimers, and packaging. Know your macronutrient needs, and remember, macronutrients can come from a variety of sources. Plant-based sources are often more micronutrient and antioxidant dense than animal products.
One more note about incorporating environmentally-responsible choices into your grocery shopping routine: buy reusable grocery bags!
I have been using them for about a decade now and of the dozens of bags I have bought, traveled with, gifted, and reused, none have ever broken. They carry many more groceries than single-use plastic bags and have much more comfortable straps to carry heavy groceries with. I’m talking about the 99 cent bags at the beginning of the grocery checkout line. There is absolutely zero advantage to using single-use plastic bags, and they are incredibly damaging to the environment.
How can I make more nutritionally sustainable food choices?
If you’re ready to leave behind diet culture, social media challenges, and common misconceptions about nutritional needs, congratulations!
When designing a nutritionally sustainable diet that suits you, first calculate your consumption needs. Determine your caloric needs, then make sure you’re getting the appropriate amount of calories from your three macronutrient sources: carbohydrates, protein, fats. (Check out my Nutrition 101 article to get your calculations and other guidance).
Once you’ve determined your nutritional needs, you can then determine how to fill those needs in a way that is sustainable for the long-term. This ensures long-term health and longevity.
For nutritional sustainability, make sure your food choices are made based on:
Meeting nutritional needs
Meeting current and future health goals
Reducing packaged and pre-prepared foods
Incorporating mostly whole foods
Incorporating foods you love (this is a great reason to try new recipes and new types of produce. Americans consume just a tiny fraction of the edible plants available for human consumption).
Eliminating nutrient-poor, processed foods (what does processed foods mean?)
Eliminating “diet” foods
Evaluating the ingredients, macronutrients, and micronutrients indicated on food labels
Mindfulness toward small, sustainable changes and one change at a time.
It may help in the beginning to use a meal tracking app or program in order to learn what the macronutrient profiles of many foods look like. Most foods provide a variety of macronutrients, which is exactly what you need at each meal.