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A healthy, sustainable diet

What is a healthy and sustainable diet?

A healthy, sustainable diet is one which has a low impact on the environment but is still good for our health. Diet recommendations should also take into consideration other factors such as health, cost, and accessibility.


To improve our health and to combat the effects of our current food system on the environment, we need to change the way we produce food and how we consume it. This will help ensure there is enough food for everyone, produced in a sustainable way that protects our planet while improving our own health.


Our understanding of these factors is still developing, but the good news is that there are some changes we can make to our diet that are likely to benefit both our health and that of the planet.


Aiming for a more ‘plant-based’ style of eating does not mean that we must cut out animal source foods completely from our diet.


Helena Gibson-Moore, Nutrition Scientist, British Nutrition Foundation

Key Facts about sustainable diets: 

  • The foods and drinks we choose are important for the health of the planet as well as our own health.
  • Globally, food production is responsible for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions (which drive global warming), uses over two-thirds of freshwater and over a third of available land.
  • The environmental impact of different foods can vary but there are some general principles we can all follow to aim for a healthier and more sustainable diet.
  • We should eat a more ‘plant-rich’ diet overall by finding ways to get more vegetables, fruit, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods into our diet which can be good not only for our health but the health of the planet.
  • We should get our 5 A DAY by eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. These foods are good for our health and tend to have a lower environmental impact than some other types of food.
  • We should try to choose a range of protein foods such as beans and pulses as well as meat.
  • We should choose sustainably sourced fish where possible.
  • We should aim to waste less food. Food waste costs the average UK household over £60 a month and is a major contributor to climate change.
  • ‘Plant-based’ does not always mean healthy. Some foods sold as ‘plant-based’ can be high in salt, sugar or saturated fat. Make sure you check the traffic light label on food packets and choose foods with more greens and ambers, and fewer reds.

How does the food we eat affect the environment?

Food production has a big impact on the environment.

At present, our global food system is responsible for:

  • Between a fifth to one-third of all greenhouse gases are released by human activities, which contribute to climate change.
  • Over two-thirds of global freshwater use.
  • Over a third of the global land area.

We also have a rising global population, which is expected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050.

This will mean increased demand for food, especially animal-based foods like meat and milk, as populations become more prosperous. This higher demand for food will place extra pressure on our food system, which is already being affected by climate change.

Is a vegan diet better for my health and the planet?

Evidence suggests that a vegetarian or vegan diet can help to reduce the greenhouse gases and land use associated with our current diets but might not be as effective for reducing the amount of water that is needed. Studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of some diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. 

However, this may be partly because vegetarians and vegans are healthier in other ways, such as drinking less alcohol or doing more exercise. It is also worth remembering that foods that are sold as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ are not automatically healthier. Some products or meals may contain a lot of saturated fat, sugar, or salt, which we should all aim to limit in our diet. So, it is important to check the traffic light labels on the front of packs, and to choose those with more greens and ambers and fewer reds.

A well-planned and diverse vegetarian or vegan diet can readily provide most of the nutrients needed for good health. But there are a few nutrients that need particular attention if excluding animal source foods from the diet entirely, such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and iodine. Read more about healthy diets for vegans and vegetarians here

Should I eat a 'plant-based' diet to be more sustainable?

The term ‘plant-based’ has become very popular, but there is some confusion about what it really means. A survey of the British public conducted on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation found that close to two-thirds of people thought that following a ‘plant-based’ diet meant being either vegetarian or vegan. 

The Eatwell Guide shows the number of foods we should aim to eat from each of the food groups to achieve a healthy, varied diet (see above). The two largest groups in the guide are ‘plant-based’ foods – the vegetables and fruit group, and the starchy foods group (e.g., pasta, rice, potatoes, breakfast cereals). Other plant-derived foods shown in the Eatwell Guide are pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, and seeds.

However, the Eatwell Guide also includes some lower-fat and lower-sugar dairy foods, as well as lean meat, eggs, and fish, as part of an overall healthy diet. So, yes, we should all eat a diet rich in plants (and foods made from them) – for our health and for that of the planet - but this does not have to mean cutting out animal foods. Research shows that a diet more in line with the Eatwell Guide is likely to have both environmental and health benefits, and so can help us to eat in a more sustainable way.

Eat a more 'plant-rich' diet

Research shows that eating a diet that is plant-rich can have benefits for our health and reduce the environmental impact of what we eat. In the UK, the Eatwell Guide provides a guide that everyone (over 2 years of age) can follow to eat a healthy diet, which emphasises plant foods, but also includes some meat, dairy, fish, and eggs.

It has been estimated that if everyone in the UK ate a diet in line with the Eatwell Guide, then this would reduce the environmental impact of our diets in the UK on average by about a third. This style of diet would also improve the health of the UK population by reducing the number of new cases of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Get your 5 A DAY

Fruit and vegetables are a good source of important vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Eating at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day is recommended to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer.

Fruit and vegetables tend to have a lower environmental impact, in terms of greenhouse gases and land use, than some other types of food. Currently, only a third of UK adults meet the 5 A DAY recommendation.

Tips to increase your fruit and vegetable intake

Try having fruits like an apple, banana, or satsuma as a snack.

Add extra fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables when cooking your favourite recipes, such as curries, soups, or stews.

Sprinkle a handful of dried fruit or chopped bananas on your breakfast cereal in the morning.

Choose sustainably sourced fish

Fish is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, and oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel also contain omega-3 fats that are thought to be beneficial for heart health. Government advice in the UK is that we should eat at least two portions (140g each) of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish.

Although the amount of fish we typically eat in the UK is about half this amount, demand for fish globally has more than doubled in the last 50 years. This huge increase in demand has meant that about a third of global fish stocks are now considered overfished. It is important that we ensure a more sustainable future for fish and other seafood by making more environmentally responsible choices when shopping. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Choose a wider variety of fish: There are a wide variety of seafood species available to buy in the UK, but we tend to buy only a small number, known as 'the big 5' (cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns). Try experimenting with other seafood species, for which stocks are thought to be more abundant, or those that are caught or farmed more responsibly, such as mussels, mackerel, and European hake.
  • Look out for ecolabels on certified fish products: The blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo; the Soil Association (Organic) logo; Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification; and RSPCA monitored logos (see below). These are certifications that provide assurance fish and seafood has come from more sustainable sources that set standards for managing stock levels and animal welfare.

Choose more plant-based sources of protein 

Meat is a good source of protein and provides essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. It is not necessary to cut out meat from our diet completely to be more sustainable. 

However, we should aim to include more plant-based sources of protein in our diet. You can do this by eating more beans and other pulses, nuts, seeds, and plant-based meat alternatives (such as soya or tofu) that are not high in saturated fat or salt.

Tips to increase plant-based protein foods in your diet

Add a can of beans or chickpeas to replace some (or all) of the meat when cooking dishes such as chilli or curry. Canned pulses are an affordable and convenient protein source and provide fibre and other essential nutrients.

Try a handful of unsalted nuts or seeds as a healthier snack.

Use plant-based protein such as tofu, soya mince or textured vegetable protein (TVP) or mycoprotein to make some of your favourite dishes, like stir fries or bolognese.

Limit foods high in fat, salt, and sugar

We all know foods such as cakes, biscuits, pies, and pastries are not healthy choices, but they can also contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our diets, as well as land and water use. Limiting these foods in our diet can be a good way to reduce our environmental footprint, especially if we eat these foods often or in large amounts. 

Tips to reduce foods high in fat, salt, and sugar in your diet

Be portion wise: If you occasionally enjoy snacks high in fat, salt, or sugar, try to portion them out to avoid eating lots of calories in one go. For example, put a handful of crisps or nuts in a bowl and leave the rest for later. For more information on healthy portion sizes read our 'Portion Sizes' page.

Out of sight, out of mind: Avoid having snacks high in fat, salt, or sugar easily at hand around the home, as this might mean you are more tempted by them. Try replacing these with healthier alternatives, for example by putting a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table or next to your computer at home or at work.

Plan: Make a list of healthier snacks to buy before you go shopping. If you tend to have a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack to fill a gap between meals, plan out healthier options you can have, such as a slice of wholegrain toast and peanut butter. Read our page on healthier snacking.

Waste less food

Reducing the amount of food that we waste is a key part of making our diets more sustainable, whatever type of diet we choose to eat. It’s been estimated that food losses and waste contribute as much as 10% of greenhouse gases emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind China and the US). However, less than a third of us in the UK make a clear link between wasting food and climate change, even though 8 out of 10 of us are concerned about climate change as an issue. 

In the UK, we have reduced the amount of food we waste in recent years by 7% (between 2015 and 2018). While it may not sound like a lot, that is enough food waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall ten times! It is also estimated this has saved the UK public over £1 billion per year.

Last reviewed October 2023. Next review due October 2026.

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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any individualised advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.