Elizabeth Atherton and Josephine Head: How environmentally sustainable are the UK’s new dietary guidelines?

Last week saw the launch of the Eatwell Guide—the UK’s official food guide to healthy diets. Astonishingly, despite major changes in eating habits and advances in nutrition science, this is the first review of these guidelines since their original publication 20 years ago. While the update—prompted by expert recommendations on sugar—is long overdue and welcomed, it is increasingly clear that the food we eat doesn’t only affect our individual health, it also has a big impact on the health of our planet. Whilst many are celebrating a step in the right direction, we need to ask if the new Eatwell Guide goes far enough to address concerns about the environment.

What is the Eatwell Guide?
The Eatwell Guide has replaced the Eatwell Plate, and is a guide which breaks food down into five groups (fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, dairy and alternatives, non-dairy high protein foods, and oils and spreads). It advises what proportion of our diet these food groups should make up, and highlights some of the “healthier” choices within these groups. A picture of an actual plate divided up into five sections forms the centre piece of the new guide.

Why consider the environment?
Our health is reliant on the health of our planet. Yet we are currently producing and consuming food in ways that will ultimately limit our ability to feed future generations equitably. Our food system, from farm to fork, is responsible for approximately a third of human produced greenhouse gas emissions—the leading cause of climate change. It also impacts on ecosystems in other ways—through deforestation, water use, overfishing, and biodiversity loss. If we continue with a “business as usual” approach, it will seriously limit our ability to feed a future population of nine billion.

Different foods have different environmental impacts, but overall, meat and dairy have the greatest negative impact. It is widely agreed that reducing meat consumption and moving to a more plant-based diet is better for the environment, and can also be beneficial for health. However, different plant-based foods also have different impacts depending on where, how, and at what time of year they are produced.
Although the Eatwell Guide has incorporated some considerations around environmental sustainability, does it go far enough?

The positives

  • The recommended diet is more sustainable than current UK eating patterns.
  • The word “sustainable” features twice on the pictorial guide—once in the subheading, and once in relation to choosing which types of fish to eat.
  • Recommended dairy intake has been reduced from 15% to 8% of daily calories, and this section also now includes non-dairy alternatives such as soya.
  • Within some of the main food groups, foods that are more environmentally sustainable are given greater emphasis. For example, in the protein food group, beans and pulses are mentioned first and meat is mentioned last.
  • There is a specific recommendation to limit consumption of red and processed meat.
  • Plant-based foods have been given greater prominence. With starchy carbohydrates increasing from 33% to 37% of daily calories, and fruit and vegetables from 33% to 39%, these plant-based foods now make up 76% of recommended daily calories.
  • Foods high in fat, salt and sugars with low nutritional value are no longer included as a percentage of a healthy diet, but instead are pictured alongside the core guidelines. This change is positive for sustainability, as it addresses the wasteful use of resources to produce unnecessary foods often associated with overconsumption.

The shortcomings

  • The word “sustainable” is only used in reference to fish and not when discussing any other foods, for example meat.
  • There is nothing explicit to help people understand the environmental impacts of the foods they eat, or to explain what sustainability actually means. This could have been a great opportunity to at least link to supportive documents on sustainability such as the “Principles of Healthy and Sustainable Eating Patterns.”
  • There is no recommendation to eat less meat overall—only a recommendation to limit red and processed meat consumption.
  • There is an emphasis on eating at least two portions of fish, but experts have observed that if the global population did so, there would be insufficient fish stocks. This is a controversial topic which needs further discussion.
  • Regrettably, the Eatwell Guide has not followed the positive example set by the Swedish dietary guidelines, which include guidance on how to make more environmentally friendly fruit and vegetable choices.

What should happen next?

As the negative health and social effects of climate change and wider ecological degradation become ever more apparent, we need to rapidly develop patterns of eating that are sustainable. Yes, the term sustainability appears on the new Eatwell Guide, and environmental considerations have had an influence on the wording of food groups (a fact only explained in the small print). These are positive changes. But nowhere is sustainability defined, nor are the links between environment and food ever explicitly made.

Other countries have made greater progress on embedding the environmental impact of different foods into dietary advice, making the links clear throughout. These countries include Brazil, Sweden, Germany and Qatar. We need to ensure that we have a planet capable of feeding present and future generations in an equitable, safe, secure and nutritious manner. To do this we will need a stronger incorporation of the concept of environmental sustainability in our food consumption behaviours, but also in our food production and distribution systems. Coming up with a truly environmentally sustainable and healthy diet is a complex scientific and political challenge. Although the new Eatwell Guide has only just been released, to adequately incorporate sustainability, it’s already time to review it.

Elizabeth Atherton is a public health dietitian and Josephine Head a conservation biologist. Both work at Medact on Sustainable Diets and Health.

Competing interests: Updated on 6 April 2016. JH and EA declare that the Sustainable Diets and Health project received funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.