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A man eating a plate of food. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Diet sustainability in Europe: achieving nutritional recommendations while reducing environmental impact

Achieving diet sustainability is a major challenge. Researchers at INRA, MS-Nutrition and Montpellier SupAgro studied the issue at a Europe scale. Nutritional recommendations call for reducing the intake of fats, sugars and alcohol, increasing the intake of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods, and decreasing the consumption of animal-based products in relation to plant-based ones. However, the particular changes to the animal product consumption will depend on a country’s dietary habits. The findings were published on 14 February 2018 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition and PLos One.

Updated on 06/01/2018
Published on 02/15/2018

One of the major challenges we currently face is ensuring a sustainable diet for the world’s population. Sustainable diets are defined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation as being nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable, protective of the environment, economically fair and accessible. Using the mean observed diet in women and men in five European countries (Finland, France, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom) and mathematical modelling tools, researchers from INRA, MS-Nutrition and Montpellier SupAgro identified the changes necessary for achieving a more sustainable, nutritionally adequate diet.

Diet sustainability in Europe: achieving nutritional recommendations while reducing greenhouse gas emissions

In all countries studied, researchers demonstrated that substitutions between food groups were necessary in order to achieve nutritional recommendations in terms of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids without changing the total calorie intake. Most changes involved replacing calories from fats, sugars and alcohol with calories from starchy foods, fruit and vegetables.

In addition to these substitutions, if greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) are to be reduced while meeting nutritional recommendations, changes to animal-product consumption and within food-group substitutions are needed.

Even more substantive changes are required if the aim is to reduce GHGE to a larger degree. Reducing GHGE 30% or less is possible without shifts from observed diets. Change is necessary in the intake of animal-based products versus plant-based products, and the necessary changes in animal-based products differ by country and by gender. For example, energy from fish increases in France and Italy while it decreases in Finland, and energy coming from dairy increases in Sweden and France for both men and women while in other countries it increases for men and decreases for women. In nearly all cases, it was particularly necessary to reduce energy intake from deli meat products and meat from ruminants (beef and lamb).     

Acknowledging bioavailability and coproduction in diet sustainability

The researchers then applied additional criteria to their models: cost; bioavailability of key nutrients (protein, iron, zinc, vitamin A) that differ between plant- and animal-based products; animal coproduction links (e.g., between meat and dairy); in addition to meeting nutritional recommendations and reducing by at least 30% a number of diet-related environmental impacts (GHGE, eutrophication, acidification).

In all cases, the amount of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods increases while the intake of animal-based products compared to plant-based products decreases, as does the cost per day. It is necessary to reduce meat consumption, from ruminants particularly. The reduction is less significant, however, when nutrient bioavailability and coproduction links are taken into account. Researchers saw that, in France, starting from the mean standard for meat consumption — 110g per day for women and 168g per day for men — consumption decreased by 78% for women and 68% for men in the “nutrition–environment” model and by only 32% for women and 62% for men in the “nutrition–environment–bioavailability–coproduction” model.

These findings demonstrate that, with specific food choices, is it possible to have a sustainable diet that takes account of environmental impacts and nutritional requirements, and is affordable and culturally acceptable. While improving diet sustainability for women and men in France, and in Europe more generally, can be achieved by increasing the consumption of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods, and decreasing the consumption of animal products, the study highlights the complexities surrounding the issue and cautions against simplistic assertions that, for example, tend to associate sustainability and plant-based products.

References

Vieux F, Perignon M, Gazan R, Darmon N. 2018. Dietary changes needed to improve diet sustainability: are they similar across Europe? Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. doi:10.1038/s41430-017-0080-z

    
Barré T, Perignon M, Gazan R, Vieux F, Micard V, Amiot MJ, Darmon N. 2018. Integrating nutrient bioavailability and co-production links when identifying sustainable diets: how low should we reduce meat consumption? PLos One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191767