I’m still wondering, what should I eat?

As consumers and patients, we probably know where our food comes from and how animals are fed, but do we really know what we should eat to be healthy in the long-term?1

Each day, we receive advise not only from health professionals or technical experts, but also from our family, and friends and the media, to eat more fiber and fruit, limit our consumption of meat and highly processed food, and so on. Evidence linking health and food is not strong enough and sometimes contradicting while evidence that provides a clear understanding of the strength of the relationship between good food and long-term health has not been translated into effective actions. This is a problem at a time when non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or hypertension, are increasing. For this reason, dietary guidelines are more than ever been necessary.2

The majority of European countries have some form of dietary guideline. This is shown in the review of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) in 2009.3  However, the guidelines only concern what people should be eating to be healthier, without making any reference to the sustainable or environmental component of food. We are facing a window of opportunity to tackle both public health and environmental challenges of today by implementing dietary solutions that strongly link diet, environment and health.4 5 

Nowadays, some European countries - Germany, Sweden, and United Kingdom (UK) – as well as Australia, Brazil and Qatar have all incorporated sustainability into their nutrition policies. More recently, the Netherlands have also taken a breakthrough into sustainability by recommending people eat just two servings of meat a week, setting an explicit limit on meat consumption for the first time.6 In Sweden7 and UK8, the recommendation is eating less than 500 grams a week. Fish is also under debate in the UK due to the fact that fish stocks have been overfished9, while in Sweden they recommend to eat fish two to three times a week and vary the kind of fish one eats.

Personally, rather than focusing on reduction, more emphasis should also be placed on replacing and shifting healthy and sustainable eating patterns: such as buy more local and organic food products; increase the intakes of fruits, vegetables, pulses, whole-grains and nuts; select plant and animal-based products (fish, meat, eggs, dairy products) from sustainable sources and small-scale producers that do not use pesticides or antibiotics and respect animal welfare standards; maintain biodiversity and the seasonality of products, among others – as well as taking into consideration when, where, why and how one eats. 10 11

Overall, we need diets that are both healthy and sustainable. For this reason, we need to protect and respect biodiversity and ecosystems; ensure culturally acceptable, equitable, safe, and secure diets; optimise natural and human resources in order to feed present and future generation (modified definition for sustainable diets of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) 2010). We all know this is a complex scientific and political challenge, but since food is key in determining health, the healthcare sector should be a leader in educating staff, patients, and communities about the link between healthy and sustainable food to long term well being.

- Paola Hernandez, Sustainable & Healthy Food Programme Intern


Preview Image: Exeter University via Flickr CC

(1)        Pollan, M. (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

(2)        Anderson, W. (2011). Confused about what to eat for better health? NHMRC’s dietary guidelines might set you straight: http://theconversation.com/confused-about-what-to-eat-for-better-health-nhmrcs-dietary-guidelines-might-set-you-straight-4622

(3)        Food-Based Dietary Guidelines in Europe. (2009): http://www.eufic.org/article/en/expid/food-based-dietary-guidelines-in-europe/

(4)        Rockström, J., Willett, W., & Stordalen, G. A. (2015). An American Plate That Is Palatable for Human and Planetary Health: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johan-rockstrom/post_9225_b_6949716.html?1427397066

(5)        Tilman, D., & Clark, M. (2014). Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature515(7528), 518–522. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature13959

(6)        Gustin, G. (2016). Another Nation Trims Meat From Diet Advice: http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/23/another-nation-trims-meat-from-diet-advice/

(7)        Find your way - to eat greener, not to much and be active. (2015): http://www.fao.org/3/a-az854e.pdf

(8)        British Nutrition Foundation - British Nutrition Foundation. (2016): https://www.nutrition.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=125&Itemid=214018

(9)        Westcott, R. (2016). Government dietary guide recommends sustainable fish for first time: http://www.sustainweb.org/news/mar16_eatwell_fish/

(10)     Malone, M. E. (2014). A Diet that Fits Your Genes: http://now.tufts.edu/articles/diet-fits-your-genes

(11)     Ogden, J. (2016). Eating well – it’s more than just what you eat: http://theconversation.com/eating-well-its-more-than-just-what-you-eat-52916