Sweden’s simple and sustainable National Dietary Recommendations (NDRs) aim to be good for the gut and for the planet. The Swedish National Food Agency (NFA) updates these guidelines every eight years and, for the first time in 2015, based them on the health of humans and the environment. The NFA summarized their recommendations on the report’s cover page by stating: “Find your way to eat greener, not too much, and be active.” Monika Pearson of the NFA, who has been working to incorporate sustainability into the NDRs since 2006, tells the Food Climate Research Network about its significance. “It is an important step,” says Pearson. “Many NGOs and other organizations have been making these arguments for a long time, but when a governmental agency talks about sustainable food, it will help to push the issues forward and make more people listen, question, and act.”
The 2017 Food Sustainability Index, which measures countries’ performance on sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food waste and loss, placed Sweden as one of the highest scoring nations. Its latest recommendations include: incorporating more fruits and high-fiber root vegetables into diets; eating less red and processed meat; eating seafood two to three times weekly, but choosing only from eco-labeled producers; switching from processed, refined carbohydrates to whole grains; switching from high- to low-fat dairy; decreasing added sugar consumption; and eating only as much as you need to maintain energy balance.
While some parts of the guidelines may seem obvious, incorporating smart suggestions for both diet and environmental choices could sometimes pose a conflict. Pearson provides one example through recommending seafood to citizens: “It is a savior when it comes to essential long-chained fatty acids, vitamin D, and iodine. But with the problems of overfishing and disastrous environmental impacts of the fish farms in some areas of the world, fish has to be purchased with caution.”
In 2016, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released the report “Plates, pyramids and planets” as an assessment of sustainability in NDRs. The report notes that only four countries explicitly include sustainability in their guidelines (Sweden, Germany, Qatar, and Brazil), but that some countries could have greener policies emerging in the future. The report also mentions that the United States and Australia have seen attempts at incorporating sustainability but had not received government endorsement.
Hanna Tuomisto, associate professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Helsinki, states in the 2018 Lancet Planetary Health Journal, “The integration of sustainability in all policies is essential to minimize environmental challenges.” The recently published review by the EAT-Lancet Commission for Food, Planet and Health established scientific targets for sustainable food production and human nutrition, and highlighted the need for policy reform to facilitate achieving them. “Recommendations for healthy diets are not complete if they ignore the indirect health impacts caused by environmental changes associated with food production and consumption,” says Tuomisto.
The United States’ dietary guidelines received strong criticism after their release in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines, set to be updated in 2020, made no mention of sustainability or curbing meat consumption for planetary and dietary health. Since NDRs can be a primary point of reference in educating how to eat well, a lost opportunity could be seen by not addressing environmental outcomes as a means to drive greener practices.