Dr Simona Grasso, Course educator and Senior Research Fellow has been busy providing practical tips on how to prevent and minimise food waste in our daily life working together with EIT Food to put together a guide on how to build your own sustainable diet.

Sustainable diets are a growing topic of interest among many of us. With eye-opening statistics related to the impact of food production and consumption on our health and the planet, it’s hard not to pause and reflect on our own dietary habits.

But what exactly is a sustainable diet? And, how easy is it to achieve? We explore what eating sustainably really means and why it’s important for the health of the planet.

Why are sustainable diets important?

There has been lots of research to suggest that food is not being produced or consumed sustainably. And with the world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, where we’ll need to produce more food than ever before, we need to learn to do sustainably.

In terms of food production, agriculture uses almost 50% of the world’s vegetated land and generates 25% of the annual global emissions that contribute to climate change. It uses 70% of freshwater resources and both contributes to, and is affected by extreme weather events, land degradation and biodiversity loss. Not to mention the billions in single-use plastic that is used to package our food each year and the vast amount of food that is lost or wasted before it even reaches our plates.

Also, much of our food is not being produced efficiently. For example, an abundance of crops are produced each year to feed livestock animals. For every 9 calories we put into a chicken we get 1 calorie out. With estimates that we need to produce between 70%-100% more meat by 2050, we can’t continue to produce our food in this way.

Several of our food consumption habits are also unsustainable. For example, many people consume too much or too little. While 820 million people are going hungry, over 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. And it’s not just the amount of the food we eat that can be an issue, it’s also the quantities of certain foods in particular. It’s suggested that we generally eat too much meat, processed foods and foods high in salt, fat and sugar and not enough fruits, vegetables and grains.

We are also overly dependent on huge quantities of a small variety of crops. For example, we get more than 50% of our plant-based calories from just 3 crops and 75% of our total calories from just 12 crops and 5 animals. This leads to a reliance on a handful of crops and animals to sustain us, which makes us less resilient to pests and diseases in our food supply. It also stifles biodiversity as more farmland is given up to a smaller number of species. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything about our food system, it’s that it needs to become more resilient to combat future crises.

So, what exactly is a sustainable diet?

There are many different suggestions as to what a sustainable diet includes. But generally a sustainable diet considers the type food we eat, how it is grown, distributed and packaged, and the effect this has on the planet. For example, according to the FAO and WHO a sustainable diet:

  • Includes wholegrains, legumes, nuts and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Can include moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish, and small amounts of red meat
  • Minimises the use of antibiotics and hormones in food production
  • Minimises the use of plastics and derivatives in food packaging
  • Reduces food loss and waste

How to eat well for you and the planet

The EAT Forum have similar ideas about what a sustainable diet consists of, with a particular emphasis on planetary health. For food production to stay within planetary guidelines, while also maximising human health, our plate should consist of:

  • 50% vegetables and fruits
  • 50% whole grains, plant protein sources, unsaturated plant oils
  • Optionally, modest amounts of animal sources of protein

Do sustainable diets have to be vegetarian/vegan?

Experts at the EAT Forum believe that our diets should shift toward flexitarian  – this means eating more vegetarian foods with small amounts of fish and meat, such as one beef burger a week or one large steak a month. A diet that is mainly plant-based often causes concerns regarding a lack of protein consumption. To settle the plant-based versus animal protein debate you can learn more here.

While you can eat some meat sustainably, it is important to consider your intake, reduce how much red meat you eat, and see whether you can counter-act the impact of your meat consumption through other parts of your diet or consumer behaviour.

How to reduce food waste

As part of building a sustainable diet, we can also determine how much food we waste as individuals, which is important as food waste is a huge issue. For example, in the UK alone food wastes equates to 25 billion tonnes of GHG emissions a year. To reduce your own food waste footprint, you can do the following:

  • Plan meals ahead of time so you only buy what you need
  • Make use of food storage such as freezers
  • Cook tasty meals which use up your leftovers
  • Eat more home-cooked meals rather than takeaways

If you are interested in learning more about food waste, the EIT Food course ‘‘How to tackle food waste’ can help you on your way. Course educator and Senior Research Fellow Dr. Simona Grasso from the University of Reading also provides some practical tips to minimise waste. She says, “Next time you go shopping buy a bag of wonky vegetables, try to plan meals and bring a shopping list with you. You can also share food with others in your community using apps like ‘Olio’ and save food from going to waste with apps like ‘Too Good To Go’”.

If you want to read more about reducing household food waste, click here