by | October 1, 2021 | Opinion

Dietary guidelines for co-benefits: a case for European action

The ‘vibe’ around food systems is unprecedented. Only last week, the United Nations (UN) dedicated two days during its General Assembly – the place where global leaders meet – to discussing food. The UN Food Systems Summit, and its process, has been decried by many as a corporate power grab. Others frame it as the most inclusive and constructive debate ever had. At least one thing is clear:  the level of attention to food has reached a high point.

But as the rousing speeches about innovation and ‘food systems heroes’ subside, what anchor points are left on which to actually build sustainable food systems? Dietary guidelines, it is suggested, should certainly be considered as one of those. Diets are increasingly at the heart of the food debate and dietary guidelines will, in parallel, have to gain in significance.

Not because dietary guidelines of themselves are particularly effective at influencing how individuals eat. A recent paper that analysed adherence to UK guidelines found that a mere 0.1% of respondents followed its nine recommendations. And this considering such guidelines have been around in the UK for a while. Rather, their importance lies in the capacity to guide institutions, both public and private, in setting the parameters for food environments, which in turn influence what food we buy and eat.

To better align people’s food choices with dietary guidelines, food environments need to be re-shaped to mirror such guidelines in terms of the foods they make available, accessible, affordable and desirable as we go through our every-day lives.

The potential gains of such alignment are not negligible. The same study found that higher adherence to the UK’s dietary guidelines was associated with reduced premature mortality and would cut around 30% of diet-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Another study that looked at 85 food-based dietary guidelines around the world estimated that adherence would result in a 15% overall reduction in premature mortality, mixed changes in natural resources demand and, on average, 13% GHG emissions reductions, though with significant regional variation.

The paper also points out that many current guidelines are actually not that optimal from both dietary health and environmental perspectives. It concludes that, to increase health gains, many guidelines should focus more on supporting increased intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes, on reducing red and processed meat and highlighting the importance of balanced energy intake. To maximise environmental gains, guidelines should, in most contexts, provide clearer advice on limiting the consumption of animal source foods, findings that are supported by a wide range of other sources.

The observation that both healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines are slow to roll-out around the world, including Europe, is not new. In 2016, a comprehensive overview  found that out of 215 countries, 83 had food-based dietary guidelines, and of those, only around 8 explicitly included sustainability considerations. While most of those cases are in Europe (including Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands), these numbers are not encouraging. Since that report, several more guidelines have specifically taken on board sustainability considerations, including in Flanders. But the launch this year of the updated Danish dietary guidelines is especially noteworthy.

With the subtitle “good for health and climate”, the Danish guidelines take a notable step further in promoting varied, nutritious and plant-rich diets. They put significant emphasis on increasing fruit and vegetables (600 g/day), alongside whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. They also provide a far-reaching recommendation to moderate meat consumption (350 g/week) and also suggest introducing meat-free days. This approach is well within the bounds of the ‘planetary health diet’ proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is often seen as quite ambitious (it recommends an intake of 0-196 g/week (average 98g) of beef, lamb and pork, and 0-406 g/week (average 203g) of poultry).

6 key recommendations from the Danish dietary guidelines
  1. Eat plant-rich, varied and not too much;
  2. Eat more fruit and vegetables (600g/day), of which at least half should be vegetables, and of different kinds, including root, dark green, red and orange vegetables;
  3. Eat less meat (350g/week), choose legumes (100g/day), nuts (30g/day) and fish (350g/week);
  4. Eat wholegrain foods (75g/day or more, focus on diversity);
  5. Choose vegetable oils and low-fat dairy products (250ml of milk or dairy/day, 20 g of cheese/day)
  6. Eat less sweet, salty and fatty food (salt: 3g/day, sweet drinks: not more than 0,5 L/week).


Why, ultimately, do dietary guidelines matter?

First, authoritative guidelines help take away ambiguity about the desired direction of dietary change, thereby saving time and preventing conceptual confusion (see, for instance, the bizarre and suggestive formulations doing the round today about promoting ‘healthy and balanced’, as opposed to just ‘healthy’ diets).

Second, they help determine which foods we should be eating more of – and therefore need a push in the back, and which ones do not. This is critical for having a clearer sense of purpose when it comes to designing individual policy measures, including on promotion, pricing, public procurement and to test the adequacy of labelling systems.

The same counts for marketing regulations. According to the new Danish guidelines, a child between 7-9 is recommended to have “1 chocolate biscuit, 2 ice lollies and 2 small handfuls of sweets (60 g) per week” as well as maximum 1/3 litres of soft drinks. Children of no matter what age are not supposed to have energy drinks at all. This implies that the tolerance level for the exposure of children to the marketing of such products should be set at ‘zero’.

Third, at a higher level, sustainable healthy dietary guidelines can help underpin the further development of ‘co-benefits’ policies in the food space. Achieving co-benefits in food systems is possible because many food systems dimensions are closely interconnected and often share similar drivers and solutions, as illustrated by, for instance, the One Health principle. Adopting a co-benefits approach to policy will involve conceptualising ‘co-benefits pathways’. These can be seen as strategic combinations of mutually reinforcing measures that maximise benefits across as many food systems dimensions as possible.

While sustainable healthy dietary guidelines do not usually address more than a handful of sustainability dimensions, they do set a firm framework by establishing the relative importance of different food groups. Further attention is then required as to how these foods get to the table in terms of their wider socio-economic, environmental and animal welfare credentials. For instance, the finding that sustainable diets in many countries around the world are unaffordable, is a reflection not on the diet per se, but on people’s socio-economic conditions. Likewise, plant-rich diets can be produced with high agrochemicals input, or following more agro-ecological approaches. Finding the right way forward will depend on many different policies and interventions, but ambitious dietary guidelines can set the parameters for those quests.

What role for Europe?

Despite the importance of sustainable dietary guidelines and despite good examples in several European countries, overall progress in updating national guidelines appears slow. This lack of movement may also stand in the way of a more forthright and consistent implementation of the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy.

There certainly is a role for Europe in this. One option could be to draw-up a European meta-guideline, inspired by the FAO/WHO principles for sustainable diets, or based on the upcoming update of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations in 2022. This is not a far-fetched idea. While the final published version of the F2F Strategy does not contain any action related to the development of sustainable dietary guidelines, several draft versions leaked before its publication did. The idea was therefore considered, but eventually dropped, for reasons unknown.

Another approach, which may be more politically expedient, is for the Commission to step-up in a coordinating role to underline the urgency of moving forward and to speed-up the process of national exchange. Facilitating and funding a Joint Action in this area can be part of such an approach.

Whichever way may be chosen, food sustainability is high on the agenda and significant movements are expected in this space over the course of the next years. If the actions of EU countries start diverging too much, for instance, due to a lack of common baselines, this will be a major obstacle for the health and shared future of Europeans. But it is also not unthinkable that disparities between national laws and practices on the promotion of healthy and sustainable diets may, eventually, also start posing obstacles for the smooth functioning of Europe’s much-cherished common market.

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