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Food and the environment: how to follow a nutritional sustainable diet?

Is it possible to eat healthy and sustainably? This subject was discussed on various scientific journals and on a recent publication on Lancet this is thoroughly explained. In essence, it is absolutely possible to follow a nutritional sustainable diet!

To do this, however, it is necessary to review the eating habits of individuals and communities , improve production methods and reduce food waste. In particular, the researchers highlight how a diet based mainly on foods of plant origin and low in those of animal origin, entails benefits for health and for the environment. The so-called sustainable diet takes in consideration both the healthy and sustainability aspect which are 2 pillars of live.

Sustainable diet

The good news is that the foods that have the least impact on the environment are the ones that should be present more on our tables and which, moreover, have a protective effect on health.

With the term sustainable diet, or “Planetary health diet”, we want to highlight the fundamental role that nutrition plays as a link between the state of health and environmental sustainability.

A sustainable diet is therefore a healthy food model with low environmental impact.

When it comes to the environmental impact of food production, the entire life cycle must be taken into consideration: from cultivation, to harvesting, to transformation, to packaging, up to the final disposal of the product. In detail, we talk about life cycle analysis (LCA) . Here are the numerous indicators that help to understand, in a simple way, this complex subject. 

Carbon footprint The emission of greenhouse gases or climate-altering gases responsible for climate change. It is closely related to energy use. Mass(kg of CO 2 equivalent) 
Ecological footprint The surface area of ​​land (or sea) needed to supply resources and absorb the CO 2 emissions developed during the life cycle of a product, from field to disposal. Surface( global m2 )

Water footprint
Consumption and methods of use of water resources by the production system.Volume
(liters om 
2 ) of water

The Sustainable Diet


The production of cereals has in general minor environmental impact, compared to other foods and therefore whole grains, should therefore never be lacking in a healthy and sustainable diet. Only rice cultivation has a significant water footprint, since rice paddy fields need irrigation.

Cereals represent the main source of complex carbohydrates and starch is used by cells for energy production. Additionally, they also contribute to the reach the daily fiber requirements, which are sometimes difficult to reach only with recommended portions of fruit and vegetables.



Among the foods which are a good source of protein , the legume are those with the lowest environmental impact. Basically, apart from releasing some emissions while cooking legume are environmentally friendly. Legume crops are able to transfer the nitrogen absorbed from the atmosphere to the soil, favoring a reduction in the use of fertilizers and they are also fundamental crops for crop rotation.

Legumes, therefore, not only play a key role for health, but also for the environment .


The production of meat determines an important environmental impact , which starts with the cultivation of forage. However, not all meet has the same effect on the emmission of greenhouse gases as beef is considered to have a higher impact than poultry.

In a sustainable diet, we should prefer white meet over red meat as per usual recommendations for healthy eating.


The production of milk and cheeses has a lower environmental impact than that of meat. These foods are an excellent source of protein and calcium, and can be part of a healthy and sustainable diet.


Finally, fish, in addition to being an excellent protein source, has excellent quantities of good fatty acids, particularly in oily fish there are omega-3s, undisputed players in cardiovascular prevention. Although it is still necessary to work on the protection of the various marine species, in recent years there have been numerous measures adopted by the various countries, in the field of aquaculture fishing, for their protection. Among the different types of fish, preference should be given to small ones.

A Typical Sustainable Diet Dish

According to the Eat-Lancet working group a healthy and sustainable dish should consist of:

  • About half of the plate should consist of vegetables and fruit , followed by the main source of carbohydrates is represented by whole grains . A small segment is dedicated to starchy vegetables, such as potatoes.
  • As far as protein source foods are concerned, preference should be given above all to vegetables , legumes and nuts , followed by low-fat cheeses, fish, eggs, white meat and red meat.
  • Among the fats to prefer the good ones , i.e. food sources of unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil and other vegetable oils.
  • Finally, a small portion of the dish is covered by the added sugars . In fact, the latter must be limited as much as possible, an excess can favor the conditions of overweight and obesity, which in turn are a risk factor for the most common pathologies in Western countries.

Analyzing it slice by slice, it can be seen that the sustainable healthy dish, after all, does not differ much from the representation of the healthy meal.

Nutritional Sustainable Diet

Smart Tips to Reduce Waste

The fight against waste is one of the most important objectives to make the agri-food system more sustainable. There are many things that can help reduc waste and this includes legislation, production companies but also individuals. Everybody can do something to achieve this.

Here are some useful tips to reduce waste at home :

  • Buy what you need, you can help yourself by writing a shopping list and planning meals.
  • At the supermarket, buy the products closest to expiry, especially if you know you will consume them in the short term.
  • Don’t throw away leftovers from a meal, you can use them as ingredients for other recipes.
  • In the pantry, arrange the products with the closest expiration date in front of those with the furthest date.
  • Freeze leftover foods, you can do this by remembering not to leave them out of the refrigerator for too long once cooked.
  • Check at the supermarket if there are products on offer with close deadlines.
  • Remember that the wording on the label “best before” is not an expiration date. The product is still safe for health, but some organoleptic characteristics can be lost after that date.
  • Arrange the food correctly in the refrigerator.
  • When you finish a product, pay attention to the type of packaging and follow the rules for the correct separate collection. Buy products with recyclable packaging.
  • Don’t buy too much food, especially fresh food, unless you’re sure you’ll eat it all

These actions are small gestures that can contribute to safeguarding the planet. However, whenever we can we should support NGOs to push these changes throughout all sectors since a multi-sectoral approach is needed for a large-scale transformation of the food system.


Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Willett W et al. Lancet , 2019.

The EAT-Lancet Commission Summary Report, 2019

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