How Close Are We to Defining Sustainable Eating Patterns?

  • Article
  • February 16, 2017

People want more from their food above and beyond good taste, reasonable price and convenience.

Some people are increasingly motivated to buy foods based on another factor: social impact, which includes contributing to sustainable food systems. But what qualifies eating patterns as being sustainable?

For some, sustainable eating patterns are composed of foods made in a way that respects the environment and protects natural resources. But there’s more to it than that. For an eating pattern to be sustainable, it also needs to provide nourishment vs. just calories, as well as be affordable – and alternative choices need to meet people’s taste and cultural preferences, among other factors. Researchers of a recent systematic review made it clear that defining sustainable eating patterns is a large task. If this is to become a core priority for the nutrition community and the public, research must better reflect the diverse complexities of sustainability. Let’s explore what that means:

It’s complicated

A report of a group of international experts to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) proposed a conceptual framework of the multiple components of sustainable eating patterns. Those include:

  • Well-being, health
  • Biodiversity, environment, climate
  • Equity, fair trade
  • Eco-friendly, local, seasonal foods
  • Cultural heritage, skills
  • Food and nutrient needs, food security, accessibility


As you can see, a large number of health, ecological and social considerations need to coincide, which makes it difficult to precisely define sustainable eating patterns. The task is complicated, but with time, patience and the focused effort of experts from different disciplines working together, we can fill in the research gaps.


What should we measure and how?

In order to fill research gaps, we need to know what to measure and how to measure it. The ILSI Research Foundation recently identified seven food system metrics that they feel help “make it possible, for the first time, to holistically and accurately measure food system performance across all relevant domains of interest: nutrition, environment, economic, social, resilience, safety and waste.” However, additional work is needed to verify these measures, particularly at a national or local level.

Though the potential for measurement exists, only a few of the components of sustainability, such as the global warming potential of greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. GHGE), are often measured. However, eating patterns with lower GHGE, may not improve nutritional quality or health (Drewnowski 2015; Payne 2016) or other parameters like soil health or water use, which is why it’s critical to have the multi-dimensional approach.  

Integrating environmental, health and economic considerations

French researchers used statistical modelling in an attempt to balance several dimensions of dietary sustainability, including reduction of diet-related GHGE, nutritional adequacy, acceptability and affordability. They found that moderate GHGE reductions of 30 percent or less could be accomplished without compromising the other aspects of sustainability measured.   

As research continues to unfold, it’s not clear who will set priorities and decide what actions to take, especially in the absence of scientific consensus. We must all be keenly aware that decisions lacking a strong research base could cause unintended harm.

Though much work remains to be done, National Dairy Council, in collaboration with America’s dairy farmers and dairy community, is helping to build a strong base of science as quickly as possible. Dairy farmers have been called the “original environmentalists,” because they have always been stewards of the land. Every day they demonstrate their commitment to provide nutrient-rich milk to people in the most sustainable way possible. Innovations over the last century enable farms to provide more milk using fewer resources. Since 1944, producing a gallon of milk requires 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water, and has a 63 percent lower carbon footprint. Check out the inspirational stories from the 2016 Dairy Sustainability Award winners