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Sustainable eating refers to healthy diets from sustainable food systems. It involves a global shift toward a more plant-based, whole-foods diet and utilizes, as much as possible, direct to consumer purchasing of locally produced whole foods. (1)
A cornerstone of sustainable eating is utilizing local seasonality, which is food that is grown or produced outdoors in its natural season without the use of additional energy and consumed in the same climatic zone without high-energy use for climate modification and storage.
The localization of the food supply chain is based on the beneficial impacts for the environment, ecosystems, society and culture, local economies, and individual health and well-being. (2)
A Plant-Based or Plant-Forward Diet
A plant-based or plant-forward diet consists entirely or mostly of foods derived from plant sources including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (3) with few or no animal products. Those practicing this eating pattern may or may not necessarily be vegan or vegetarian.
A reduction in processing, transportation, food loss, and waste is part of sustainable development goals. By choosing local, seasonal food products, emphasizing a plant-based diet, and supporting sustainable and/or organic farming practices, individuals can reduce their ecological and environmental impact while inciting positive global change.
Often, sustainable cooking means scratch cooking, which requires familiarity in the kitchen with whole-food ingredients. Cooking sustainably minimizes highly processed, refined foods. It proves to be fantastic for health, the budget, and the environment.
Ways to Choose Sustainable Food
You can get sustainable foods from the following avenues:
- Local farmers markets: A physical retail marketplace designed to sell foods directly from local farmers to consumers within that area. Farmers, therefore, do not have to go through wholesalers, food processors, or grocery firms and require less need for transport, handling, refrigeration, and storage.
- Farm stands: A small market or stand, often roadside, for fresh grown produce and farm goods located at, on, or near the farm and typically run and owned by the farmer(s).
- U-pick: U-pick is an alternative selling method used by farmers where the public can harvest produce from the farm directly themselves.
- Community-supported agriculture (CSA): A way to connect food producers and consumers within the food system more closely by allowing subscription to the harvest from a farm or group of farms to receive fresh, locally grown produce and/or other farm goods throughout the season, typically weekly or biweekly. (4)
Benefits of Sustainable Eating
Here are a few pros of sustainable eating:
1. Decreases food budget
Buying foods in their whole, fresh form, in season, and direct-to-consumer (farmer to you) is usually less expensive.
2. Establishes meaningful connections
Positive relationships have been built between farmer and consumer by discussing availability, taste, and tips for preparation and storage. A stronger appreciation of food grown by someone you know has become common.
3. Enhances cooking skills
Using more whole foods when cooking allows greater enjoyment and sensory perception of meals.
4. Increases opportunities to engage with other members of the local community
Farmers’ markets, farm activities, farm-to-table events, and CSAs are great avenues for people to meet and participate in promoting positive change locally.
5. Supports farmers
Farmers earn greater profits as compared to when they sell to wholesalers, food processors, and grocery firms.
6. Reduces expenditure
There is less need for transportation, handling, refrigeration, and time in storage. Farmers are oﬀered simplicity, transparency, and independence selling direct to consumer. (5)
7. Supports the local economy
The food grown, processed, and distributed locally generates jobs, further stimulating a variety of local economies and greater appreciation for people working in the food chain. (6) Plus, the revenue generated is then reinvested to support other local businesses within the community.
8. Contributes globally
Contributes globally in the following ways:
- Reduction of food insecurity (by improving availability of food)
- Reduction of food waste (by mitigating loss due to transport, storage, refrigeration issues, etc.)
- Reduction of malnutrition (less pressure on resources for growing and distributing food to areas in need)
- Reduction of climate change (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and use of natural resources)
9. Puts less pressure on land and water resources
Sustainable eating promotes the welfare of the soil, waterways, ecological biodiversity, and wildlife.
Problems Associated With Food Sustainability
The conventional US agricultural system, which is highly centralized and resource intensive, involves very weak links between production and consumption. This leads to an agri-food system that is unsustainable – that is, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and high levels of malnutrition.
The eﬀects from within the food supply chain, from input-production to processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and waste disposal, contribute to the huge global challenges people face, such as food insecurity, climate change, and poverty.
The current global picture of diet and health is also complex and troublesome. Rates of diseases of morbidity and mortality in the United States have been on the rise for decades and are highly correlated to the impacts of the industrialization of the food system and modern Westernized diets. (7)
Research continues to show that creating an individualized dietary pattern rich in plant-based whole foods is highly nutritious and significantly reduces risk factors for people’s most common health conditions and diseases. (3)(8)
Best Ways to Practice Sustainable Eating
Some of the best ways to practice sustainable eating are:
- Utilization of the agricultural abundance of your region
- Focusing on seasonal produce and locally cultivated and created food products
- Foraged wild foods from both land and sea
Most-Asked Questions About Sustainable Eating
Can a sustainable diet be used for weight loss?
In as much as a transition to a more whole-foods, plant-based diet can support weight loss, an emphasis on a sustainable diet will inherently incorporate this way of eating.
You’ll be supporting your body in nourishment while minimizing empty calories, refined sugars, excess fats, sodium, and preservatives used in highly processed convenience foods, which are often the cause of excess weight beyond healthy for your body type.
Why is eating meat not sustainable?
Eating meat is not always unsustainable; however, the raising of meat for consumption requires intensive resources.
Seeking out local, sustainable ranchers and farms oﬀering meat can often lessen the impact on resources such as less transportation and processing, which lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while also promoting the welfare of the soil, waterways, ecological biodiversity, and wildlife.
How can one compensate for the nutrients missing in a sustainable diet?
There is no reason nutrients should be missing in a sustainable diet, particularly if an individual continues to eat a small amount of animal-based products such as dairy and meat.
In general, a sustainable diet focused on whole foods, seasonal and local ingredients, and minimally processed foods should increase overall nutritional adequacy. There is an increased nutrient concentration (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals) of food products due to prolonged ripening periods and less time between harvest and consumption.
Sustainable eating also encourages diversity of food choices by adding seasonal variations and more variety of color (nutrients) on the plate. In addition, there is a higher intake of fresh, whole, produce, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and quality proteins, helping meet dietary recommendations for 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of whole fruit each day.
If one chooses to be fully plant based, strict vegetarian, or vegan, there is concern over certain nutrients such as vitamins B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, vitamin B12 and vitamin D are predominately animal-sourced nutrients but can easily be obtained in a vegan diet through fortified vegan products such as plant-based milks and cereals or through supplementation.
Calcium is easily obtained through increased consumption of dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy, as well as soy products, particularly calcium-set tofu.
Iron sources include beans, peas, lentils, spinach, chard, and enriched grains, and eating vitamin C-containing foods such as oranges, peppers, tomatoes, and kiwis can increase its absorption. However, if you have a predisposition to iron deficiency and/or anemia and are not taking a supplement already, you may need to.
To have adequate omega-3 fatty acids, incorporate plenty of nuts and seeds into your diet. Those highest in omega-3 include walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds.
The concept of sustainable nutrition is about making food choices that support the health of the environment and the human body. As a global society, people have been asked to participate in an aim for sustainable development, where the needs of the present generation are satisfied without threatening the needs of future generations.