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Food Consumption

Interventions to enable preparation and consumption of sustainable, nutritious, and healthy diets.

Introducing food systems-based dietary guidelines

Overview

Global malnutrition – in all its forms – remains one of the world’s most pressing challenges. Unhealthy diets and malnutrition are among the top 10 risk factors contributing to the global burden of disease. More than 10% of the global population is affected by hunger: more than 800 million people live with food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition due to a lack of access to adequate food and more than 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. Meanwhile, more than 2 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese.

It’s clear that the world needs to rapidly shift towards adequate, accessible, nutritious and sustainable diets. Sustainable healthy diets as defined by the UN, FAO and WHO are dietary patterns that promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable. 

Dietary guidelines – implemented at global, national and sub-national levels – are a key policy tool for promoting positive changes among food system actors, including towards the adoption of more sustainable diets among consumers. When it comes to nutrition, people need trustworthy, authoritative guidelines that cut through the often erroneous, conflicting and ever-changing dietary advice in the media and online. Dietary guidelines, such as national-level food-based dietary guidelines, aim to provide evidence-based, context-specific recommendations and can form the basis of public dietary education. These guidelines also serve as a guide to inform policies across the entire food system, including agricultural, distribution, trade, processing, marketing and retail and taxation policies. 

Concrete measures to implement

To effectively introduce food-based dietary guidelines to increase consumption of healthy and sustainable foods, policymakers can consider:

  • Reviewing existing dietary guidelines:
    • Assess if these guidelines adequately address all aspects of food systems (including health, environment and socio-economic impacts of diets), are based on local contexts, and that policymakers across government actually utilize them to inform policy decisions.
    • Guidelines should be aligned with reputable, science-based sources such as:
    • In integrating a food systems approach to existing guidelines, follow the forthcoming FAO stepwise approach.
  • Develop and adopt food-systems based dietary guidelines by following the below stepwise approach based on FAO’s methodology:
    1. Design and plan national process:
      • Set-up the organizational structure. 
      • Establish the technical task team and develop a work plan.
    2. Analyse the situation and review the evidence:
      • Define the scope and modality. 
      • Conduct a targeted policy and programme review.
      • Describe and prioritize major nutrition, health and sustainability issues. 
      • Review evidence on relationships between diet and health, and other sustainability outcomes. 
      • Describe diets and set preliminary goals and targets. 
      • Conduct a targeted analysis along the food system and revise goals/targets.
      • Review evidence on effective interventions across the food system.
      • Draft and review the Situation Analysis and Evidence Report
    3. Develop recommended dietary patterns and formulate the technical recommendations:
      • Carry out diet modelling and refine diet goals/targets.
      • Formulate multi-level technical recommendations covering diets and enabling food systems intervention.
      • Validate, revise and finalize the technical recommendations. 
    4. Develop the national implementation strategy:
      • Prepare for the development of the implementation strategy.
      • Consult stakeholders for strategy development.
      • Validate, revise and finalize the implementation strategy.
    5. Design communication and capacity development actions:
      • Organize the process.
      • Agree on the targets. 
      • Design communication and capacity development products. 
      • Develop a workplan for rollout.
    6. Implement, monitor and evaluate:
      • Endorse and launch.
      • Operationalize the national governance structure for implementation.
      • Develop and execute sectoral implementation plans.
      • Carry out continuous capacity development.
      • Monitor, evaluate and improve.
  • Include socioeconomic considerations (based on principles of ecological economics) when designing guidelines to account for feasibility of their implementation based on the local context, including following factors: 
    • Food prices and diet costs
    • Profitability
    • Wealth/profit distribution across the food system
    • Employment opportunities with liveable wages
    • Safety net programs
  • Focus on implementation from inception by considering potential organizational capacities, barriers and enablers for implementing the food system-based dietary guidelines.
  • Ensure a participatory process for the development of guidelines while managing any conflicts of interest among stakeholders. This process should involve consultations and working groups that include representatives of various stakeholder groups, including those listed above. Stakeholder engagement in the policy development process is essential, particularly so that the framework can best be adapted to the local context and to resolve trade-offs between aspects of healthy eating, nutrition and environmental sustainability. This engagement process must be inclusive and transparent to ensure that stakeholders trust the recommendations.
  • Use food labels, advertising campaigns and other means to widely communicate accurate, standardized and easy-to-understand information about dietary choices. For more information, see Regulating advertising of unhealthy and unsustainable food and Regulating food quality and safety.
  • Expand guidelines’ target audiences. In addition to consumers, nutritionists and health practitioners, guidelines should also target other actors relevant to food systems such as policymakers, program designers/implementers, teachers, social workers,  food service organizations, manufacturers, the media and agricultural extension workers.
  • Align all the national food systems-related policies and programs with food-based dietary guidelines. Identify policy instruments that can be expanded in terms of coverage, strengthened in terms of capacity and funding, and better aligned with the goal of promoting healthy, sustainable diets for all. Examples include income transfer programme (e.g. social protection schemes, cash transfers via safety nets and employment guarantee schemes), business promotion initiatives (e.g. extending rural finance, tax incentives for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the food sector and enhanced canteen meal projects) or agricultural extension programmes which also support community-level health messaging and public food procurement policies.

Enabling governance measures

Bottles of Argan oil

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress

Frameworks developed to inform the evaluation and modification of dietary guidelines:

Climate change mitigation benefits

Dietary guidelines, if they increase the number of people consuming healthy and sustainable diets, can in turn reduce emissions associated with food supply chains and production.

Other climate benefits

Shifting to healthy and sustainable diets can result in:

  • By definition, healthy and sustainable diets “maintain greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, nitrogen and phosphorus application and chemical pollution within set targets.”
  • Reduced risk of eutrophication due to reduced agricultural inputs and its associated negative effects on water and air pollution. Eutrophication is the process by which aquatic systems become over-enriched with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus due to the run-off of agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizers into water systems). 
  • Reduced acidification due to reduced inputs associated with agricultural production (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides). 
  • Improved soil health and air quality due to reduced use of fertilizers and fossil fuel energy.

Adaptation co-benefits

Healthier and more sustainable food consumption encouraged by the introduction of food systems-based dietary guidelines is expected to:

  • Lead to healthier and more resilient populations, reducing the risk of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases (e.g. colorectal cancer, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes). Studies show that dietary improvements could prevent one in every five deaths worldwide. 
  • Drive the shift to more sustainable food production and consequently (see more information in Implementing nature-positive food production practices):
    • Protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.
    • Reduce water pollution and groundwater protection. 
    • Reduce pressure on water and land resources.
    • Reduced land-use change and land degradation. 
    • Reduce fossil fuel energy use.

Other sustainable development co-benefits

  • SDG 2 (zero hunger)
  • SDG 3 (good health and well-being)
  • SDG 12 (responsible/sustainable consumption and production)
  • SDG 14 (life below water)
  • SDG 15 (life on land)

Main implementation challenges and potential negative externalities and trade-offs

Food consumption is a sensitive, personal topic which means that individuals may be highly resistant to change their consumption habits. There are three main dimensions of sensitivities that often hinder dietary shifts: 

  • Socio-economic sensitivities: accessibility and affordability of healthy and sustainable foods; livelihoods tied to production of foods with high environmental impact. 
  • Political sensitivities: political interests and leverage of producers of foods with high environmental impact (e.g. meat industry). 
  • Cultural sensitivities: cultural values and identities attached to certain foods with high environmental impact (e.g. beef and dairy products).

Measures to minimize challenges and address potential negative externalities and trade-offs:

Dietary guidelines can address these challenges and increase their effectiveness if adopted dietary guidelines are: 

  • Linked to other food-related policies (e.g. repurposing of food-related subsidies, public food procurement, food-related social security spending, livelihood support, recipe reformulation, food marketing and advertising regulations and/or policies for healthier food environments). 
  • Specific to different target groups to account for sensitivities and context-specific differences in dietary needs (e.g. children, senior citizens and pregnant women), social factors (e.g. cultural norms/tastes and languages), economic factors (e.g. income levels) and geographic factors (e.g. rural vs. urban and/or food deserts). 
  • Develop social programmes (e.g. direct cash assistance and job training) to protect producers and other supply chain actors whose livelihoods depend on food products that are not recommended.
  • Assist negatively affected actors with transitioning into other sectors or producing healthy foods. 

Implementation costs:

Data not available.

Intervention in practice

Worldwide, more than 100 countries have developed food system-based dietary guidelines and 38 countries explicitly mention environmental sustainability components within them. Dietary guidelines with sustainability considerations also exist at regional levels: 

  • The Nordic nutrition recommendations is based on the latest scientific evidence and constitutes the basis for national dietary guidelines and nutrient recommendations in the Nordic and Baltic countries. The latest edition of the guidelines (published in 2023) incorporates recommendations on foods that are beneficial for the environment. The guidelines recommend a predominantly plant-based diet with a moderate intake of low-fat dairy products and limited intake of red meat and poultry. 
  • Denmark’s 2021 dietary guidelines were developed on the basis of a Danish scientific study and with the dual objective to encourage healthier but also more climate-friendly diets. Additionally, the implementation plan includes a wide range of communication activities and engagement with a large variety of stakeholders. 

References

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