Sustainable eating is not only about protecting the climate and the environment, it is also about ensuring your health and wellbeing. Here’s a science-based guide for eating more sustainably.
What should I eat to eat sustainably? Am I allowed to eat meat and dairy? What does green eating look like? These questions have become more and more common as we start to examine our eating habits and how they impact the environment. And it might be the reason why you have landed on this page. Google is your friend, right?
First of all, disclaimer alert. You have entered a website owned by one of the world’s largest dairy cooperatives, Arla Foods. But before you judge us by the cover and bounce off to the next page, we have three words for you; Eat more vegetables.
Yes, you read it right. A dairy cooperative promoting plant-based eating. Why?
Because it is good for the planet and for your health. But (and yes, there is a “but”), take a balanced approach and make sure you get all the nutrients you need.
Read on as we, together with PhD and Nutrition Scientist at Arla, Lea Brader, give you a science-based insight into:
- What is a sustainable diet
- What should you eat to eat sustainably
- 3 tips for making your diet more sustainable
What is a sustainable diet?
The world’s population is facing two major challenges; malnutrition (in all its forms) and the degradation of environmental and natural resources. So when we talk about what sustainable diets are, we need to look at it from several angles and take into account both planet health and people health.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable healthy diets as follows:
“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and** nutrition security and to healthy life** for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”
In other words, when it comes to sustainability in relation to food it is multi-dimensional. To be truly sustainable, a diet needs to do well on all these components.
If a diet has a low environmental impact but does not provide us with nutritional benefits, it is environmentally friendly, but it is not sustainable.
Nutrition Scientist in Arla, Lea Brader explains:
The reality is that there is no simple answer to what is a sustainable diet. In fact, there is no such thing as ONE global sustainable diet. Sustainable diets differ depending on where you are in the world and can be composed in different ways.
The climate impact of producing different types of foods can vary a lot between countries as well as our individual nutritional needs as human beings, depending on your physical condition, how much you exercise – or whether you are a child, elderly or have a disease.
On top of that, our diets are also influenced by what is affordable and accessible to us, what type of agriculture has historically been predominant in our region as well as our local cultural traditions within food.
So yeah, it can all be a bit confusing when thinking about how to eat sustainably. But hang tight and read on. There are principles you can follow.
What should I eat to eat sustainably?
The conclusions from several research studies are that a shift to healthful plant-based diets is needed to feed the growing population sustainably in the future, for example as recommended in WHO and FAO’s report “Sustainable healthy diets – Guiding principles” from 2019.
Nutrition Scientist in Arla, Lea Brader explains:
In general, the report states that we should all base our diet on a variety of:
- seeds, and
- whole grain cereals
And then complement it with a moderate amount of other food groups like fish, dairy, eggs and small amounts of meat to ensure we get all the nutrients that we need.
The key is to have a balanced and varied diet mainly based on plants, which can be complemented with animal-sourced foods. When choosing which plant foods you should base your diet on it is important to consider the quality of them.
According to this fact sheet from WHO, you should preferably choose minimally processed foods and drinks so for example whole grains over refined grains; whole fruits over fruit juices; unrefined non-tropical vegetable oils such as olive and sunflower oil over coconut and partially hydrogenated oils and unsweetened beverages over fizzy drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
3 tips for making your diet more sustainable
Nutrition Scientist in Arla, Lea Brader:
1. Follow the official dietary guidelines in your country
If you would like to eat more sustainably, a good place to start is to follow your national dietary guidelines.
Different studies show that if everyone decided to live by the principles recommended by national health authorities, we would be a step closer to eating more sustainably.
For example, a review paper from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) in 2021 found that if people in the UK followed the official Eatwell Guide it could reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of adult diets by 20-50%.
A similar estimation has been suggested by the Danish Council on Climate Change in a report from 2021 suggesting that if the Danish population changed their food habits to follow the official Danish dietary guidelines the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from diets could be reduced by 29-41%. (Bear in mind that these types of calculations always come with dependencies and uncertainties).
One of the sustainability benefits from following official dietary guidelines is that you avoid eating more than you need. With less food consumed, the environmental impact from food will be lower as well as the risk of overweight and diet-related lifestyle diseases.
National dietary guidelines promote diets that are healthy, nutritious, culturally acceptable, and accessible. Additionally, some countries, like Sweden, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, have included climate aspects of food into their dietary guidelines too.
Get an overview of Food-Based Dietary Guidelines in different countries here.
2. Eat locally grown foods
Find out what types of food are grown and produced in your country or in your local community and eat these, especially when they are in season.
Locally grown foods are often more culturally acceptable. Diets are a way of life that shapes and is shaped by local social, cultural and economic contexts. By supporting local food production you are also contributing to your local community (FAO).
3. Reduce your food waste
Another simple way that you can make your diet more sustainable is to reduce your food waste.
2.1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year. That is a staggering one third of all the food available for human consumption in the world. On a global scale, wasted food is estimated by FAO to be responsible for 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Plan your shopping - don’t buy more than you will use
- Freeze leftovers - use them on a lazy day instead of getting take-away – its cheaper and probably healthier
- Be creative - use as many leftover ingredients as possible in your next meals – it’s fulfilling and filling at the same time
- Imperfect veggies and fruits are perfect in soups, juices, smoothies, bread and cakes
- Store food correctly to expand shelf life - at low temperature, in air-tight boxes, away from sunlight etc.
- Use your common sense - and your other senses to look, smell and taste food that has passed the expiry date – it is often too good to throw out
Can dairy be part of a sustainable diet?
According to Danish dietary guidelines, dairy is recommended on a daily basis when taking both health and climate into account.
Dietary guidelines in other countries can vary a little, depending e.g. on national food habits, so you should check out your national guidelines for more specific advice.
The Danish dietary guidelines recommend a diet that is “good for both health and climate” and encourage the Danish population to eat plant-rich, varied and not too much.
Dairy is a great nutritional and culinary complement to plant foods in plant-based or plant-rich diets as it forms an important part of, for example, flexitarian as well as vegetarian diets.
The Danish guidelines say that you can include 250 ml of milk and other dairy products in your daily diet plus a slice of cheese (20g). If you don’t like cheese, you can add another 100 ml of milk to your diet on a daily basis, so 350 ml daily in total.*
Also read: Are plant based milk alternatives better for you?
All dairy products that you eat on a daily basis should be low-fat, while full-fat dairy should only be enjoyed once in a while. These are the nutrients that you can get from milk and that are recommended on a daily basis:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
Read more about the recommended daily intake of these nutrients here.
*Please note that the specific recommendations on daily intake of dairy on this website are following the recommendations in Denmark, where Arla is legally based. Recommendations vary slightly in other countries and you should always seek detailed advice from your own national health authorities.
What we do to reduce dairy’s carbon footprint
Like all types of agriculture, plant-based or animal-based, dairy farming emits greenhouse gasses. Farming and dairy carries a responsibility, but also a great opportunity to contribute positively and help solve the climate challenge. At Arla we want to be part of the solution.
Since 2015, our farmer owners have reduced emissions per kilo of milk by 7 per cent. Our most recent Climate Check data shows that Arla farmers' average carbon footprint is 1.15 kg of CO2e per kilo of milk.
But even though we've made progress since 2015, the number is not a result – it’s a baseline for improving further.
Read more about how we are working together with our farmer owners to reduce dairy’s carbon footprint here.