Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Diets

When discussing food and its sustainability, people often focus on production methods. They are concerned about whether foods are local, GMO-free, pasture-fed, organic, or certified. However, we should also be aware of the impact on the food system's environment, biodiversity, and workers' welfare. 

We govern food production based on demand. Industry officials should be able to admit that our food choices impact people and nature. We must broaden our perspective and take a holistic approach to create a more sustainable food system. 

As the driving force of the food industry, we need to think about the connection between our plates and the planet. Keep reading as we discuss sustainable diets.

What is a Sustainable Diet?

A sustainable diet is good for us and our planet. It's like being a superhero, where every food choice can help save the world. Picture this: you're shopping for dinner and making choices at the grocery store.

Your food choices keep you healthy and protect our environment, animals, and other people. A sustainable diet isn't just about what we eat, though. It's also about reducing food waste and packaging.

In the U.S., experts estimate that we waste 30-40% of the food supply. A sustainable diet that respects biodiversity and ecosystems is culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair, and affordable. These diet plans optimize natural and human resources. 

A sustainable diet is about making good food choices for you, others, and our planet. Still, there's more to it than picking healthy foods or eating fruits and vegetables. 

What Are Some Sustainable Foods?

Depending on where you live, sustainable foods are easy to find. You may already eat sustainable foods without even realizing it. Some examples of sustainable foods include:

  • Whole Foods: These foods are as close to their natural form as possible. They include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and more.
  • Locally Sourced Foods: Choosing locally grown foods reduces transportation emissions, supports local farmers, and the economy.
  • Organic Foods: These foods use no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, reducing pollution and harm to human health.
  • Plant-based Proteins: Plant-based proteins require fewer resources and produce less pollution than animal-based proteins. Adding plant-based protein powder is a sustainable choice for working out.
  • Ethical Animal Foods: Try choosing ethical products from local farms. These farms should prioritize animal welfare and protect the environment. Think of cage-free chickens as a place to start.

Several of the foods mentioned above are what many people assume are healthy choices, but they often overlook their sustainability. 

Some Factors of a Sustainable Diet?

With urbanization and income growth, nations may witness a shift in their dietary patterns. These shifts sometimes lead to higher calorie intake and more animal-based foods like:

  • Beef
  • Dairy
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fish

The demand for animal-based food, especially beef, will rise by 95%, anticipating an 80% surge from 2006 to 2050. While some of this growth could cause health and welfare improvements, excessive food consumption drives the rest. Let's dive in and figure out what other factors a sustainable diet needs.

It Has Enough Nutrition

A crucial part of a sustainable diet is getting the proper nutrition. It's about eating more fruits and vegetables and balancing these with proteins and carbohydrates. Sure, kale and spinach are healthy, but your body needs protein for energy and tissue repair.

You can get these proteins from plant-based sources like lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa. These foods use less of our planet's resources than animal-based proteins. Plus, they provide many other nutrients like fiber and iron.

So, a sustainable diet helps our planet and ensures we get all the nutrients we need for a robust and healthy body. It's like hitting two birds with one nutritious stone.

The Diet is Economically Fair and Accessible

An essential aspect of sustainable diets is that they should be economically fair and accessible to everyone. Think of it like this: What if only a handful of people can afford it? Is it exclusive to certain areas or available everywhere? 

A sustainable diet must be available to everyone, regardless of where they live. This means that vendors should price sustainable foods reasonably. We should also work towards systems that make these foods more available worldwide. 

Research shows that making sustainable diets accessible could reduce healthcare costs and environmental impacts.

Has a Low Environmental Impact

Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. An easy way to understand a sustainable diet's potential impact is by thinking about your food's journey. Imagine a bag of tomatoes you just brought home from the store.

Your single bag of tomatoes is grown on a farm. Then, a farmer picks the best-looking tomatoes to send to the market. Before you can select them, the farmer has to package the produce in material that may or may not be recyclable.

After that laborious process, the farmer transports the tomatoes, which uses fuel, to your favorite grocery store. Finally, after doing your part, the tomatoes land in your salad. Now scale that up to the entire world's population, and you'll see how impactful unsustainable food practices could be.

A sustainable diet is about reducing our carbon footprint through smart food choices. It's like going for a walk instead of a long drive—it's just better for Mother Earth. Still, it's much easier to say than to do, but choosing plant-based proteins can also reduce our environmental impact.

It Is More Plant-based

A sustainable diet leans more towards plant-based foods, and there's a good reason for that. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds require fewer resources to produce.  Water is one of the necessities in agriculture and accounts for 69% of global freshwater withdrawals.

So, the less water we use in food production, the better. Agriculture accounts for nearly 50% of the world's vegetated land and is responsible for 25% of the global emissions. If we want to significantly reduce our environmental impact, shifting toward a plant-based diet makes sense.

This is not about turning vegan or vegetarian overnight. Instead, it's about gradually changing our eating habits over time. Many people are substituting their daily protein needs with plant-based options. 

Eating enough protein every day helps us maintain optimal health. We need protein for immune function, cellular processes, growth, and more. We can get it from plants and animals. 

There are differing opinions on whether the source of protein matters or if one type is better. Animal-based and plant-based proteins have unique nutritional benefits, so experts recommend including both in your diet. A sustainable diet emphasizes more plant-based proteins because they have a lower impact and provide many nutrients. 

There are many plant-based protein sources, but common ones include:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Soybeans (Tofu, tempeh, and edamame)
  • Quinoa
  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Chia seeds
  • Nuts
  • Pea protein products

These foods are more sustainable because they require less water, produce less greenhouse gasses, and provide essential nutrients. So, making your diet more plant-based is like switching from a gas-guzzling truck to a super-efficient hybrid car—it's better for your health and the planet.

Uses Seasonal Foods

Including seasonal foods in our diet is another significant element of sustainable eating. Have you ever noticed how strawberries taste sweeter in summer and how apples are crunchier in the fall? That's nature's way of saying, "Eat me now!"

Foods peak during their natural growing season and offer better taste and nutrition. They're often cheaper because there's more of them available. Here’s a bonus: eating seasonal foods maintains a sustainable diet.

When we choose seasonal foods, we're supporting local farmers and reducing the demand for out-of-season produce. Out-of-season produce usually ships from far away. This means less fuel for transportation and likely less pollution. 

And if you're wondering what's in season in your area, check out this handy guide.

Why is a Sustainable Diet Important?

As eating habits evolve worldwide, there is a notable shift towards diets rich in calories, protein, and animal-based products. The consequences of these changes for global food security are hard to ignore. For instance, by simply reducing meat and dairy consumption, the average American could reduce their diet's environmental impact by half.

Does that mean you should go dairy-free, become vegan, or both? Not necessarily. Still, research shows these small diet changes can make a huge difference.

Many people view sustainable diets as more affordable than conventional diets. While that is true in some regions, in others it’s not. In higher-income countries, eating sustainably is 22% to 34% cheaper. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for lower-income countries, which are 29% more expensive.

But we cannot deny that sustainable diets positively impact the planet and human health.

Tips to Start a Sustainable Diet

Advice is easy to give but sometimes hard to follow. Here are some practical tips to make your transition easier.

Avoid Processed Foods

Highly processed foods can have a heavy environmental impact due to the resources they use in production and packaging. These foods often contain unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium. Processed foods even cause your body to form free radicals, which can harm cells.

Instead of processed foods, opt for fresh, whole foods that are not only better for you.

Use Sustainable Hydration

Another tip is to consider sustainable hydration options. Try sticking to drinking tap water or a reusable water bottle rather than single-use plastic bottles. In any case, hydration is vital to maintaining a healthy body and mind.

Consider a Dairy-Free Diet

If you're feeling adventurous, consider trying a dairy-free diet. Dairy production can have a significant environmental impact, and plenty of delicious and nutritious alternatives are available. Eliminating dairy from your diet can help you manage dairy allergies and lactose intolerance. 

Managing or removing dairy from your diet can reduce bloating and enhance skin health. Whatever your reasoning, you need to replace the vitamins and nutrients you'll lose with a dairy-free diet. Dairy products offer:

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Protein
  • Vitamin B12

If you're not getting these nutrients from dairy, add foods rich in them or consider taking multivitamin supplements.

Choose More Sustainable Diets

Sometimes, cutting out a particular food group isn't enough. Choosing sustainable diets means opting for ingredients that have few adverse effects. While fasting, dieting, and other restriction methods help your health, other diets may work best.

Official dieting plans have pros and cons, but diets you can tailor to your lifestyle have the most longevity.

  • Flexitarian Diet: The flexitarian diet promotes a flexible approach to eating. Dieters focus on plant-based foods while allowing for the occasional inclusion of animal products. It encourages sustainability by reducing reliance on meat and promoting a plant-centric diet.
  • Vegetarian Diet: Vegetarian diets exclude meat and seafood but may include animal by-products like dairy and eggs. By emphasizing plant-based foods, vegetarian diets can contribute to sustainability by reducing the environmental impact associated with animal agriculture.
  • Vegan Diet: Vegans exclude all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. This diet promotes sustainability by minimizing the demand for animal-derived foods and reducing the environmental footprint associated with animal agriculture.
  • Pescatarian Diet: Pescatarian diets exclude meat but allow for the inclusion of seafood and plant-based foods. While not completely vegetarian, this diet can still contribute to sustainability. Dieters limit eating land-based meats and promote eating seafood with sustainable fishing practices.
  • Mediterranean Diet: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole, plant-based foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This diet is associated with lower environmental impact due to its focus on locally sourced, seasonal, and minimally processed ingredients.

The best part about sustainable diets is that there are many pathways to a healthy lifestyle. You can choose what works best for you, your body, and your values.

Final Thoughts

Adopting a sustainable diet is a personal decision and a significant step in shaping our planet's future. Remember, every meal is an opportunity to positively impact your health and the environment. Maintaining a sustainable diet might be challenging initially, but it becomes a lifestyle with education, dedication, and the right choices.

For more guidance on health and wellness, visit the Reflect blog. We regularly update the blog with practical tips to help you navigate a healthier and more sustainable life. At Reflect, we also understand that sometimes you need a little boost in your nutritional intake. 

That's why we offer a range of high-quality, sustainably sourced supplements to complement your diet. Remember, every small change can lead to significant impacts. A healthier outlook on life starts with hydration, nutrition, and movement.