What Your Health Professional Should Be Telling You About Food Sustainability

Cooking Class, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Cooking Class, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Last month I had the pleasure of writing a piece for the Dietitians Association of Australia’s Vegetarian Interest Group. The topic was food sustainability for health professionals. As consumers become increasingly concerned about the link between dietary consumption and environmental impact, it is important that their trusted health professionals can provide them with accurate, up-to-date information in this area. This version of the article is aimed at Australian Dietitians, although it is helpful for consumers to have access to the information their health professional should be sharing with them. The original version can be seen here.

Connecting The Dots: Our Food System and Climate Change

Climate change needs little introduction these days and we have come to understand it’s link to increasing levels of greenhouse gases. As temperatures rise there is the potential for it to influence our lives in many different ways, but one area it will particularly affect is agriculture yields. In some countries such as Canada, global warming is likely to improve crop-growing conditions and improve yields. The opposite is predicted to occur for Australia.

Some foods are having a bigger impact on our planet than others, and as health professionals it is our job to know the ins and outs. We can safely assume that all processed foods carry a hefty carbon footprint – with the packaging, transport, storage and lengthy ingredients list. But it’s not just Krafts and Nestles of the world that we have to worry about. As we counsel our patients away from processed foods and towards the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGTHE), we are trying to do the best by them, but are we doing the best by our planet? Encouraging more meat and dairy equates to more water, land and energy used. Increasing consumption of seafood means further strain on our already depleted ocean stocks. Even counselling on increasing non-seasonal fruit and vegetable intake could mean hefty food miles and transportation costs. Is it possible to intertwine a healthy balanced diet with the health of our planet?

Tasmania, Australia

Tasmania, Australia

Sustainable Food Systems Around The Globe

In 2009, the Swedish National Food Administration teamed up with the country’s Environmental Protection Agency to create guidelines on environmentally friendly, healthy diets. That same year the UK Sustainable Consumption Commission prepared advice to decrease consumption of meat and dairy products as a priority area. By 2012, our new AGTHE barely touched on the issue of food sustainability, and Australia was once again been left behind.

Now is the time to start intertwining the issues of human and environment health within our practice. Waiting another 10 years for the new and updated AGTHE to point us in the right direction is not an option as direct action is needed now. I have compiled a few of my top priorities for eating a healthy, sustainable diet for us to take on in our daily lives, as well as promote in our daily practice.

Pigs in Bali, Indonesia

Pigs in Bali, Indonesia

Choose Your Protein Wisely, and Not Too Much

Methane possesses 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and in Australia, agriculture is the most significant contributor of methane (59.5%). To put this in another context, overall global livestock production accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation system. The AGTHE recommends 2-3 serves of meat or alternatives per day and 2 1/2 – 4 serves of dairy. For many of our critically ill patients, adequate protein of high biological value is of the upmost importance. On the other hand, for a large majority of population, an excess consumption of meat may be paving the way to a lifetime of chronic disease.

It’s not just the amount of meat consumed but also the source, as some will have a higher carbon footprint that others. With the AGTHE recommending a maximum of 455g of meat per week but not specifying the source, it is up to the Dietitians to lead the population towards more sustainable choice. Start by encouraging one meat free day per week utilizing legumes and eggs as a source of protein. Condone chicken, pigs, and meat from animals that graze. Limit consumption of meat from methane producing cows, sheep and goats, and choose methane free kangaroo instead. Lastly, seek alternatives to dairy for sources of calcium such as green leafy vegetables or fish bones.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown, New Zealand

Become an Expert on Sustainable Seafood

Fish stocks are declining. Whether it be due to raising ocean temperatures, reduced nutrient supply, ocean acidity or extreme weather, it is a dire issue that needs to be acknowledged. If anyone, it is Dietitians that should be the experts on sustainable seafood. Current recommendations of 2-3 serves of fish per week can be irresponsible if the type and source is not specified. The Australian Marine Conservation Society tells us to say no to Orange Roughy (aka Deep Sea Perch), Farmed salmon (aka Tasmanian Salmon), Shark (aka Flake), Snapper and Southern Bluefin Tuna (wild and farmed), amongst many other species. It also encourages us to choose Mackerel, Whiting, Mullet, canned imported salmon (from Canada or Alaska) and canned imported sardines (Canada or Thailand).

Aquaculture, or fish farming has been portrayed as a good alternative to help curb overfishing. More research into the area might reveal that often this practice leads to even more unsustainable behaviour. Farmed fish are often dependent on wild fish for feed, often consuming more fish that it produces. A farmed tuna is fed 8–11kg of fish for each kilogram of live weight gained. Farmed salmon, Southern Bluefin Tuna, Yellowtail Kingfish and Trout are also kept in sea cages where there is the potential for pollution and fish to escape into the wild. With three-quarters of the worlds oceans overfished, when recommending a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids we do have the responsibility to encourage the sustainable option. See the Australian Marine Conservation Society website for more details. Fore more reading view my post Seafood: Is There Something Fishy About Fish Farms and Seafood: The Good The Bad And The Ugly.

Encourage Real Food

By encouraging real food and reducing processed foods, we are not only keeping lifestyle diseases at bay, we are also reducing packaging waste. There are 3.3 million tonnes of packaging produced per year in Australia. Australia alone produces more that 1.3 million tonnes of plastic per year, made from oil, gas and coal – all non-renewable resources. If the packaging isn’t recycled it can end up in landfills which takes up space and can result in soil and water contamination and the generation of methane.

When encouraging real food, genetically modified organisms (GMO) need to be questioned. There is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to GMOs and human health and no long term, independent safety studies on GMO foods exist. What we lack in knowledge in regards to health we make up for in comprehension of environmental effects. The risks are endless when altered genes are released into the environment as there is no controlling where they go. This puts a huge risk on the preservation of plant biodiversity and organic farmers are greatly concerned. It is difficult for the common consumer to avoid GMOs as Australia has minimal labelling laws in place. With GMO corn, soy and sugar (sugar beets) in most processed foods in some form or another, it is safe to say that 80% of the packaged food in the supermarkets contain some GMO ingredients. If we encourage consumers to stick to the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket we can assure them they are most likely shopping GMO free. Globally, aside from GMO papaya from Hawaii and to a small extent sweet corn and squashes, all other fruits and vegetables are GMO free. For further reading see my post Genetically Modified Foods: What This Means For Your Health and The Health of Your Environment.

Bali, Indonesia

Bali, Indonesia

Support Organic and Go Local

While the nutritional benefits of organic foods has not yet been supported by the hard facts, there are some studies that have reported the presence of more natural plant compounds (phytonutrients) in organic crop. There is also evidence that certified organic produce has a lower chemical residue level. Organic crops are grown without the use of most synthetic and petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, as well as herbicides. They use natural fertilizers which include compost, livestock manure and legume cover crops which help to increase soil fertility and build soil carbon. Swiss researchers have found that soils on farms managed by organic principles are much healthier and house a more diverse community of organisms; another great argument for the organic debate.

Organic produce is often more expensive than conventional produce which could be a barrier for many consumers. Often locally produced food straight from the farmer is grown with organic principles in mind but the small farms may not be able to afford to go through the organic certification process. Ask questions and get to know your farmer. Shopping at farmers markets will bring you closer to the source of your food. It will also encourage you to eat seasonally, a practice that has been long lost since the advent of the major grocery chains.

View from Sri Pada, Sri Lanka

View from Sri Pada, Sri Lanka


Eating for our health and the health of the planet shouldn’t be a new concept, and really it isn’t. Encouraging less meat and processed foods, and more legumes and vegetables is the basis of most lifestyle disease prevention counselling. The link between increasing waist-lines and environmental strain may seem clear to most of us, however the lay person may not be so well informed. Dietitians have the potential to influence the food choices of thousands of people on a daily basis. Now is the time to begin guiding our patients towards a diet which is both healthier for them, and also the environment.

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One Response to “What Your Health Professional Should Be Telling You About Food Sustainability”

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  1. Paul Jones says:

    Just on the organic issue. Are there studies out there looking at the big picture for overall fuel use, and overall environmental impact?. I guess I am thinking, if the crop yield is lower per hectare for organic, could more diesel fuel be used (in farm machinery etc), to grow a given amount of food?

    I don’t know the answer, and I’m guessing it would vary a lot depending on the food, growing conditions etc.

    Do you know of any studies Iooking at this question?

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