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What do health professionals know about sustainable diets?

Reports | Published  5 January 2023

Eating Better partnered with the Faculty of Public Health and the UK Health Alliance for Climate Change (UKHACC) to produce a new report 'Health professionals and sustainable diets: Policy and understanding'


It is not new information.  Over 10 years ago, the government’s Foresight Report outlined the damage to our environment and climate caused by our food system and concluded it is fundamentally unsustainable: the way we produce food compromises our ability to produce food (1).  Research has revisited the question from multiple angles – land use, water use, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, air pollution, water pollution, carbon emissions – and has converged on a single conclusion in-line with the Foresight Report: our food system is unsustainable and must change (2,3,4).

It’s clear that experts know this shift is essential, but how do people generally view the idea of a sustainable diet? In the UK, a recent government poll showed most of us (73%) would like to buy food with a lower environmental impact, but only some of us (48%) think we know what a sustainable diet means (5).  So, the intention is there, but we need information we can trust. And since organisations and health professionals are among the most trusted voices in the UK, we could look to them for guidance and example.  For medical professionals to do this, they would first need to understand, adopt and support sustainable diet policies. But do they? 

Eating Better partnered with the Faculty of Public Health and the UK Health Alliance for Climate Change (UKHACC)to dig into this question. Organisations and professionals signed up to the UKHACC mailing list already have an active interest in sustainability generally, and climate change specifically – and this is the group we surveyed. If any group of health organisations would support sustainable diets, this would likely be the one. 

As it turns out however, this group is largely in the same position as the public, even when they already actively engage with a sustainability agenda. A strong majority of health professionals who responded (86%) said that sustainable diet policy aligns with their organisation’s aims (86%) and that they’d be willing to advocate for sustainable diets (71%).  However, most organisations (66%) did not have any policy or position on sustainable diets. We asked those without a current policy what the main barriers to implementing a sustainable diet policy was: support from leadership, competing priorities and capacity were cited, but a majority reported a main obstacle of not being clear on the definition of a sustainable diet. 

The FAO definition* of sustainable diet is broad and includes not only environmental considerations, but other vitally important considerations including health, accessibility, and cultural acceptability. But how does this paragraph description turn into clear guidance that or the basis of a workable policy?

*Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.

While there are many aspects of sustainable diet that need to be described in practical terms, there is one area where evidence is clear in terms of environmental impact, which is on the benefit of reducing meat and dairy consumption. In the UK, The Committee on Climate Change recommends a 20% reduction in meat and dairy by 2030 and 35% reduction for meat by 2050, eating better meat and plant-based alternatives. And the National Food Strategy Review recommended a 30% reduction in meat and dairy (6). Reducing meat and dairy consumption could easily be a starting point in sustainable diet policy within health organisations, providing clarity of a starting point that is currently. 

Our report recommends action to produce clear guidance, hold a panel discussion with UKHACC members to discuss the issue, and develop clear policies and recommendations that can be adopted by health organisations.  This will be a good starting point, but it won’t be enough until people understand what a sustainable diet is as clearly as they know why it’s important.

View the full report here or download the slide deck summary.

1. Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. Final Project Report. . London: The Government Office for Science, 2011.

2. WWF. Living Planet Report 2022 - Building a nature-positive society. In: Almond REA, Grooten M, Bignoli DJ, et al., eds. Gland, Switzerland: WWF, 2022.

3. Crippa M, Solazzo E, Guizzardi D, et al. Air pollutant emissions from global food systems are responsible for environmental impacts, crop losses and mortality. Nature Food 2022;3(11):942-56. doi: 10.1038/s43016-022-00615-7

4. Poore J, T. N. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 2018;360:987-92.

5. Heard H, Bogdan A. Healthy and Sustainable Diets: Consumer Poll. Executive Summary: Food Standards Agency, 2021.

6. Horton H, Harvey F. England must reduce meat intake to avoid climate breakdown, says food tsar. The Guardian 2022 16 August 2022.