Friday, 18 January 2019

Sustainable diets must be a public health priority

Guest post by Tom Embury, Public Affairs Officer at the British Dietetic Association

The publication this week of the EAT-Lancet Commission report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems makes it clear that our health and the planets are inextricably linked. As such, improving the sustainability of our diets must be a public health priority. This is something that the British Dietetic Association (BDA) has recognised for some time, and we have recently launched our One Blue Dot toolkit to help dietitians, as key public health actors, deliver on that priority.
Pale Blue Dot - photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe

One Blue dot – the only home we have

The BDA chose to name our Environmentally Sustainable Diets Toolkit 'One Blue Dot' for the famous image taken by Voyager 1. It is of the Earth from a distance over 3.5 billion miles, and in it our planet appears as a pale blue speck, less than one pixel wide, in the vast darkness of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan said of the image:
"To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known"
Our eating habits are having an adverse impact on the environment and we are endangering the future of the planet – up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) come from the production of food – and it’s the only one we’ve got. We also know that our current food system is not providing for human health either. Over 800 million people worldwide still do not have enough to eat, while nearly two billion are now overweight or obese.

We believe that eating more sustainably can be a win-win – good for us and good for the planet. It’s also the responsible thing to do. As Ursula Arens, one of the dietetic experts who helped us write the toolkit put it: "Eat healthily for you, eat sustainably for your grandchildren".

Practical help

The BDA’s 2017 policy statement on sustainable diets emphasised the central role we believe dietitians need to play, translating the complex science of environmental sustainability as it relates to food into practical dietary advice for patients and the public at large. The statement was well received by our members but they also made it clear that we needed to do more to support them to make this policy a reality. This is a big topic and can be daunting, not just for the public but for healthcare professionals as well. That is why the idea for a toolkit was born, designed to provide a summary of the key evidence, some practical tools and links for more advice.

So far, we’ve developed a comprehensive reference guide which looks in detail at the key elements of a sustainable diet, outlines the evidence on the impact of certain foods on areas like GHGe, land use and water use. We’ve included practical meal swaps, which highlight the relatively easy ways in which common meals can be made both more nutritious and have less impact on the environment. We then include detailed information on specific nutritional considerations, in particular those nutrients that may be lacking if red meat is reduced and dairy intake moderated, such as calcium, iron and iodine.

Key recommendations

The main two recommendations within the toolkit are to reduce red and processed meat (RPM), and to moderate dairy intake. These two actions will lead to the biggest reduction in GHGe in particular, and we know that there are positive health benefits from reducing RPM and shifting away from certain dairy sources such as cheese which have high environmental impact and are also typically high in saturated fat and salt.

Other considerations, like sourcing sustainable fish, eating more fruit and veg, consuming locally produced food and reducing food waste will also make an important contribution to public health. No one action will be enough on its own. It becomes clear once you delve into the science and evidence on sustainable diets just how complex this issue is, and that even seemingly innocuous differences in the way (or indeed where) food is produced makes a big difference to its environmental impact.

What next

This toolkit is not finished; it remains a live document which we hope to add to and update over the coming months and years. While the first part is focused on dietitians themselves, we know that the next phase will be to make this a public health message. We’ve already got some more materials planned, and been delighted with all the questions and suggestions from dietitians and others about what we could look to include in future iterations. If you have any further suggestions, including on how this message can be translated for public health audiences, they’re very welcome!

We know that changing our diets alone will not save the planet - we also need to make big changes in transport, energy, waste and many more besides. However, as the experts in diet and health, it’s the area in which we have the expertise to make the biggest difference.

You can find out more about the One Blue Dot toolkit on the BDA website:

Image: 'Carl-Sagan-Pale-Blue-Dot' by Owen Iverson via, copyright © 2006:

Friday, 11 January 2019

New Year, New You or is it?

Happy New Year - or is it too late to say that? Eleven days in and how are the resolutions going? In this, the first blog of 2019, two Fuse experts take a wry look at the healthy change rhetoric around at this time of year.

New year, new backlash?

Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University

Annually we have a period of feast (December) followed by a period of resolution and attempted behaviour change. Is it just me, or is there a trend away from the new year new you pressure? While there is the January diet season and 'detox' season (which requires a blog post in itself), there is also the increase in gym membership (in this article in the Independent, one gym claims a 40% increase in web traffic between December and January). Also the Veganuary campaign, encouraging people to try a vegan diet for the month, which passed 225,000 sign-ups in its first week.

I may be stating the obvious here but we go from excess to aspired deprivation. Add into the mix the oh so helpful food environment. Did anyone else notice Easter eggs appearing in supermarkets on Boxing Day? Just as pestered parents (me) breathed a sigh of relief that the queue at our local convenience store (Co-op I’m looking at you) wouldn’t be filled with chocolate after Christmas – no…. we've already moved onto April’s feasting!

Back to the new year new you backlash, there seems to be a movement away from drastic change and a desire to be self accepting, more realistic and thoughtful about food. I have noticed a number of intuitive eating books thrust into the limelight and a trend towards body acceptance.

I appreciate that social media in general can be an echo chamber. In the world of nutrition on twitter and instagram, I try to follow people with qualifications in nutrition, as opposed to the general #nutribollocks which is so abundant at this time of year.

However #nutribollocks or not, intuitive eating or not, detoxing or not… we are surrounded (physical, advertising, online) with unhealthy options, also known as the Obesogenic Environment. Finding the healthy option still remains challenging. With the increase in popularity of vegetarianism and veganism[1], food outlets have a broader range available, for example the now infamous VeganSausageRoll - still not a healthy option, but what an incredible social media team!

So despite the rhetoric at this time of year about healthy changes, until we have systemic changes in our environment that make the healthy option the easy option, that make it easy and safe for us to build exercise into our daily life, that make alcohol less accessible, we are not going to have a healthy population.

Amelia is a dietitian and public health nutritionist.

The benefits of dry January and remembering Scotch & Wry

John Mooney, Fuse Associate and University of Sunderland Senior Public Health Lecturer

The late Scottish Comedian Rikki Fulton’s sketch entitled New Year’s day sums up perfectly the rationale and motivation that many might share for giving up the demon drink, at least for a while, as the New Year dawns. Learning of the events of the previous night’s ‘Hogmanay party’, during which he had gambled away his car in a poker game and set fire to and destroyed his own uninsured house, the revelation that he had won a 5 litre bottle of whisky in the raffle was precious little compensation!

For most people choosing to abstain from alcohol in January however, their reasons are usually less extreme! Indeed one of the criticisms of the concept of “dry January” is that those most likely to successfully abstain are probably already light drinkers in any case and the resulting likely health gains are correspondingly small. At the other extreme of course, for those who are dependent on alcohol (by clinical definition), impersonating the Christmas leftovers by going ‘cold-turkey’ with respect to alcohol, can have serious adverse health consequences such as convulsions etc. and should be avoided. An evaluation by de Vocht and colleagues published in 2016 showed that while ‘dry January’ led to an increase in attempts to cut down, any detectable impact on consumption remained elusive[2]. In an era in which excess alcohol consumption has become normalised and the price of alcohol in real terms has never been cheaper (in the absence as yet of minimum unit pricing for most of the UK), the overwhelming consensus is that most of the population would benefit from reducing their alcohol consumption, particularly if the resolution held all year round!

John is a public health specialist and a part-time public health stand-up comedian.

  1. "In May 2016, the Vegan Society commissioned Ipsos Mori to poll 10,000 people on their dietary habits and found that Britain’s vegan population had increased from 150,000 to 542,000 in the space of a decade (alongside a vegetarian population of 1.14 million".  Hancox, D. (2018).  The unstoppable rise of veganism: how a fringe movement went mainstream. The Guardian, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 10 Jan. 2019].
  2. de Vocht F, Brown J, Beard E, Angus C, Brennan A, Michie S, Campbell R, Hickman M: Temporal patterns of alcohol consumption and attempts to reduce alcohol intake in England. BMC public health 2016, 16(1):917.