A Glimpse Into Environmentally Sustainable Diets

In this informative article, Madeleine Ouellette explains how the food we eat not only impacts our own health but the health of our natural environment.

Adopting a sustainable diet can not only help mitigate the climate crisis, but can also improve your health.

Adopting a sustainable diet can not only help mitigate the climate crisis, but can also improve your health.

The UN statement on climate action released in 2019 was eye-opening for many communities around the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that keeping global warming below 2°C can only be achieved through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including land and food. 

One way to start your journey to a healthy and sustainable diet is by following Canada’s Food Guide

Canada’s New Food Guide 

In January, the Government of Canada released a newly revised Canadian food guide. A previous Alternatives Journal piece by Genevieve Fullan challenged readers to ditch the 2007 food guide due to its hyper-focus on nutrients and lack of attention to the harm of processed foods, and follow Brazil’s food guide instead.

Canada’s new food guide adopted various aspects from Brazil’s by including recommendations for limiting highly processed foods, eating meals with others, and enjoying your food. 

One of the biggest changes was merging the milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives Food Groups — now labelled as “protein foods.” The guide directs Canadians to fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter of their plate with whole grain foods, and the final quarter with protein foods. It also recommends choosing protein foods that come from plants instead of animals more often. Numerous studies have shown that plant-based protein foods provide us with more fibre and less saturated fats, which can be beneficial for our heart-health. The guide suggests planning a couple of meatless meals each week by substituting animal-based foods with legumes, nuts, seeds, or tofu.  

Sustainable Diets

A sustainable diet is defined by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as, “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.” 

Research supports that plant-based diets have lower environmental impacts on water use, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions, and can therefore be seen as more environmentally sustainable diets. 

Plant-based diets are those where plant foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts form the bulk of meals, while animal-based foods such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs are included in small amounts or excluded entirely. 

The global food system contributes to 21-37% of greenhouse gas emissions, the report states. Overall, the production of plant-based foods yields less emissions than animal-based foods. The biggest contributors in this category are (in descending order) meat, cheese, fish, seafood, and milk. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainable diets. There are many ways in which you can alter your diet to become a more sustainable one! A sustainable diet can include shopping for seasonal and locally produced vegetables and fruits, choosing tap water over soft drinks, and reducing food waste. 

There are also various types of vegetarianism that range from excluding all animal foods to excluding only red meat and poultry as displayed in the chart below.


Nutritional Considerations 

Well-planned plant-based diets — in all their forms — are nutritionally adequate and can be appropriate for all stages of life (i.e., childhood, older adulthood, and pregnancy). The key word here is well-planned.

It is important to recognize which nutrients are lacking or missing when excluding certain foods from your diet. Excluding meat, eggs and dairy could increase your risk of nutritional deficiencies in zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. Excluding fish from your diet may also add the risk of not getting an adequate amount of Omega-3 fatty acids. 

The table below outlines a few plant-based sources of some common nutrients of concern. 

Since there are so many different types of plant-based diets, it is important to see a dietitian or health care provider to discuss what supplements are appropriate for your specific diet to ensure proper nutrition — you can have deficiencies following any diet! 

You can move toward a more sustainable diet by making some of the changes mentioned above that fit within your lifestyle and are culturally-appropriate for you.

To ensure a healthy diet, you must also consider which nutrients need to be given extra attention.

Overall, an environmentally sustainable diet can benefit your health, the health of the planet, and the livelihood of future generations.

Madeleine is in her fourth year at Western University completing an Honours Specialization in Nutrition and Dietetics (BScFN) with Brescia University College. Madeleine is the lead curriculum coordinator for Nutrition Ignition, a club that teaches school aged children about nutrition and physical activity, and worked in the Family Health department at Region of Peel Public Health this past summer. She is a self proclaimed foodie and an aspiring dietitian.