Approaches and tools for understanding and adopting healthy sustainable diets


The FAO definition of sustainable diets highlights the need to consider environmental, economic, nutritional, and socio-cultural issues together when designing a sustainable diet (FAO, 2010). Although useful as a global definition, implementing such a definition at national or regional level is complex, given that existing food habits and cultures vary considerably around the world and the difficulty to guarantee the compatibility between all the dimensions defining the sustainable diet at these scales. Thus, providing diets that are nutritionally adequate, safe, affordable, accessible, and culturally acceptable, while also reducing the associated environmental impact, represents a major challenge.

Several approaches are used by researchers to propose sustainable diets that attempt to take into account the different dimensions of sustainability: nutrition, environment, socio-cultural and socio-economic. These approaches present methodological variations with different objectives.

This month, the Global Fruit and Veg Newsletter highlights three articles that discuss the role of these different approaches as tools for understanding and adopting healthy sustainable diets.

The first article (Steenson et al., 2020) discusses the challenges of defining dietary patterns that are both healthy and sustainable. It shows the difficulty to compare different national recommendations for sustainable diets due to modelling assumptions and constraints, methodological variation, and the use of different data sources and environmental metrics.

The second article (Komati et al., 2023) compares the nutritional quality and environmental impact of self-selected diets of adults in France in relation to their fruit and vegetable intakes. According to this work, a high consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with a better nutritional quality of the diet and a lower environmental impact, except for water use. The findings of this study confirm the importance of promoting a diet rich in fruit and vegetables for human and planetary health.

In the third article (Benvenuti et al., 2020), the authors proposed an innovative approach based on linear programming modelling, which includes the aspect of cultural and social acceptability. This model was applied to schools and nursing homes menus in order to propose menus that are as realistic as possible. According to this work, a significant reduction in the environmental impact of the proposed meal plans was observed, with an adequate nutritional intake and affordable prices. The meals were also varied and culturally acceptable.

The three articles clearly show that different approaches exist to understand and thus, propose diets that are sustainable for all dimensions. Some of these approaches try to observe and compare actual dietary patterns while others aim to conceive and optimize healthy and sustainable diets. All of these are complementary for building policies that aim to encourage sustainable dietary behaviours.

Caroline Méjean Senior epidemiologist in nutrition
INRAe (France)
About the author

Caroline Méjean is a senior epidemiologist in nutrition of the French Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment. She is the head of the “sustainable food and nutrition security” team of the MoISA research unit (Montpellier Interdisciplinary centre for sustainable agri-food systems). Her research topic is the individual and environmental determinants of sustainable diet, notably in vulnerable populations. She is particularly interested in the determinants of nutrition transition in the French overseas territories to curb this transition towards sustainable dietary behaviours (French West Indies, Reunion island). She notably supervised the collective scientific expertise on food and nutrition in the French overseas departments and regions ordered by the French Health Ministry (2018-2019). She has coordinated several epidemiologic studies (e.g. co-investigator of the Nutrinet-Santé cohort 2009-2016).

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