University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Food & Nutrition Programs

Making Healthy and Sustainable Food Choices

women and peppers
Consuming at least daily five servings of fruits and vegetables are one of the eight principles of a healthy and sustainable diet.

The recommendations provided in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are driven primarily by criteria to achieve optimal human health. While nutritionists, dietitians and other public health professionals commonly use these guidelines to structure their advice, you probably make decisions about what to purchase and eat based on many other important criteria such as taste, price and habit.

The government of the United Kingdom recently produced a report on sustainable food consumption, which you can read at www.gov.uk/government/publications/sustainable-consumption-report-follow-up-to-the-green-food-project. The focus is on principles of a healthy and sustainable diet.

While the U.K.'s health components vary little from the U.S. recommendations, it is refreshing to see the two sets of issues integrated and without contradictions. The U.K. recommendations are being circulated for peer review so have not yet been finalized. However, it is worth taking a look.

The eight principles of a healthy and sustainable diet in the U.K. report are:

1. Eat a varied balanced diet to maintain a healthy body weight.

2. Eat more plant-based foods including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

3. Value your food. Ask about where it comes from and how it is produced. Don't waste it.

4. Moderate your meat consumption, and enjoy more peas, beans, nuts and others sources of protein.

5. Choose fish sourced from sustainable stocks. Seasonality and capture methods are important here, too.

6. Include milk and dairy products in your diet or seek out plant-based alternatives including those that are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals.

7. Drink tap water.

8. Eat fewer foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

The principles that stand out as being the most different from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which were developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, are numbers 3, 5 and 7. The latter two obviously are focused on sustainability and are unlikely to significantly alter nutrient intake. The rationale for recommending tap water is that it is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to get hydrated since it reduces bottled water. It also implies a reduction in sugary drinks.

Number 3 is one of my favorite principles, despite its vagueness. Why? Because it suggests that all eaters should be critical thinkers and apply their personal values to their food choices.

Certainly this isn't simple since it not only requires you to identify your own values but also determine how they apply to foods available in the marketplace or that you produce at home. Examples of how your values might translate into food choices include ways livestock are treated, interest in supporting the local or regional economy or reducing the use of synthetic pesticides.

Food labels may not provide all of the information you need. Nonetheless, I think it is worth giving it a try.

Write down the values you hold that apply to food. Then consider how well matched they are to your purchasing and consumption practices.  There may be some very good reasons that it is hard to act on your values, but it's a good way to build your self-awareness and create goals for the future.