Discussion on sustainable and healthy diets is hot

News 2021-04-15 at 13:26

Sustainable and healthy eating arouses interest. This can be observed from the, sometimes heated, social media debates, but not any less when we look at the audience of an open Symposium on the 25th March 2021.

Circa 200 participants from 19 countries and 4 continents had gathered on-line to learn and explore Environmental Sustainability of Food Systems and Diets.

Sustainability is more than just environment

An impressive programme of expert speeches around sustainable eating had been jointly put together by Finnish organizations and projects. As Food Safety Director Sebastian Hielm from The Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry noted in his opening remark, sustainability is an overarching issue, and the Sustainable Development Goals should be better integrated to every day policy making.

"However, sustainability would benefit from better metrics, as it would make it easier to monitor progress."

Sustainability is making its way into dietary recommendations, which traditionally have focused on enhancing people’s health. But now, sustainability mainly refers to environmental aspects. Moreover, as Dr. Caroline van Rossum from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment presented her work on the food based dietary recommendations, even the environmental sustainability depends on the chosen indicator, for example greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and blue water use obviously measure different things.


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When developing the indicators further, it needs to be kept in mind that besides climate there are also other relevant environmental factors and even next to environment, there are other sustainability issues that relate to affordability, for example.

This is surely something that over 300 scientists are intensively working on in the currently on-going updating process of The Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR) due in late 2022. Integration of sustainability issues in this 6th version of the recommendations is an open and transparent process.

"This time also the Baltic states are involved as observers,"

explained Research Director Helle Margrete Meltzer from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Consumer education starts with children

Not much will of course happen if the consumers are not changing their habits. Dr. Marga Ocké from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment and SHIFT-DIETS -project brought out that social norms and the social environment play a big role in consumers’ behaviour. A shift towards more plant-based diets can be facilitated by, for example, accessible vegetarian recipes and acceptable prices.

"And a free tip to everybody: simply eating smaller portions quite logically reduces overall (meat) consumption."

A good way to influence future consumers is to focus on food education of young children. Climbing trees, touching plants, and tasting diverse foods can open new worlds and build a strong relationship between human health and nature, unveiled Dr. Heli Kuusipalo from THL the approach of The Nature Step to Welfare project on nutrition and health.

The afternoon of the Symposium was dedicated to nutritional quality of sustainable protein sources with presenters from French and Swiss national research centers.

Strategic research provides information for decision making 

The Symposium was also a good opportunity to be reminded of the Helsinki Declaration on Planetary Health composed in 2019. Program Director Jaana Halonen from THL enlightened the declaration that calls for taking health and related natural systems as the drivers of all policies.

Nevertheless, to design effective but also just policies, we need understanding on the factors that affect dietary choices and thus emissions. Based on preliminary results of the Just Food projects’ work on sustainable diets across socio-economic groups in Finland, Professor Xavier Irz from the University of Helsinki showed that there are synergies across health and climate, while consumers’ socio-economic background has a weak connection to GHG emissions.

The most efficient mechanism in reducing climate impact while ensuring health, would be the substitution of starch containing foods (e.g. cereals) for meat. Also the substitutions within a product category, for example meat, play an important role in reaching “the double target” of emission reductions and health.

Dr. Niina Kaartinen from the Leg4Life -project (The Role of Legumes in Diet and Health) described the positive nutritional and environmental effects of substitution of legumes for meat in diet. Studies on health effects of similar substitution scenarios are ongoing in that project.

All food systems actors are invited to the discussion

In her commentary note, the Principal Investigator of the Just Food project, Research Professor Minna Kaljonen from the Finnish Enviroment Institute concluded the need for transdisciplinary knowledge being the greatest challenge of our time. Referring to the update of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, she urged us all to use the momentum to make sure that a variety of societal actors, not just health professionals, are involved in the on-going discussion of sustainable diets.

An open online Symposium on Environmental Sustainability of Food Systems and Diets was organized by The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), University of Helsinki, University of Eastern Finland, STN/Just Food project, STN/Leg4Life project and University of Eastern Finland, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition/FoodValley. The Symposium was funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

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More information

  • Research Director Liisa Valsta, The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, +358 29 524 7818

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