New analysis of UK eating habits highlights the urgent need for action if we are to make any inroads to adopting healthy and environmentally sustainable eating habits.1 Shifting the UK population’s persistently poor eating habits towards the Eatwell guide (EWG) recommendations, would reduce our carbon footprint by a third and significantly improve health outcomes.
Four years since it was launched, less than 0.1% of the population is achieving the EWG recommendations
Assessment of adherence to the EWG was based on nine EWG food and nutrient recommendations with quantifiable set targets (see table below). The biggest proportion of the population (44%) achieved 3-4 of the 9 recommendations (see chart below). Total fat and salt targets are being met by the majority, whilst fruit and vegetable, fish and free sugars targets are rarely achieved and just half the population are keeping saturated fat intakes down. Interestingly 64% of the population are consuming red and processed meat within recommendations.
Of all the recommendations, adherence to 5-a-day had the biggest health impact and was associated with a 9-10% reduction in total mortality risk
Higher adherence to the EWG can lower our carbon footprint by 30%
Compared to diets with very-low adherence to the EWG (achieving none to two of the EWG recommendations), diets of moderate to high adherence (achieving 5 to 9 recommendations) were 30% lower in CO2 equivalent. This supports earlier analysis of the Eatwell guide2 and concurs with the EAT Lancet that diets based predominantly on plant foods have a significantly lower carbon footprint.3
Reducing red and processed meat (without having to exclude it from the diet) provided the biggest reduction in carbon footprint and water use
The study only focused on the 9 specific recommendations and did not consider other dietary patterns that were not quantified by the EWG, yet associated with improved health and environmental outcomes, such as consumption of beans, pulses, nuts, and seeds. This may have highlighted further dietary recommendations the UK fails to achieve.
As well as focusing on the type of foods to be consumed, the authors also discuss the importance of food provenance and reducing our reliance on imported foods, especially air freight, and plant foods grown in water scarce countries.
This publication adds further weight to the importance of advocating a diet rich in plant foods and moderate quantities of animal-based products. A recent publication has highlighted that the EWG is not as sustainable as the more stringent EAT Lancet or WHO dietary recommendations.4 However, decades on, less than 0.1% of the UK population succeeds in adopting the national dietary guidelines – setting even more stringent dietary targets is unlikely to shift dietary behaviour. To safeguard human and planetary health, it is paramount that more urgent effort is made by all stakeholders to help the nation. As public health messaging over the decades has clearly had little impact, maybe it is time for government and all policy makers, to focus on making radical changes to the environment we live in so it is conducive to making sustainable choices.
Datasets used by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine research team. For dietary intakes and health outcomes, four UK datasets were used with a total of over ½ million participants: EPIC Oxford, UK Biobank, the Million Women Study, and the National Diet & Nutrition Survey. Environmental impact: national and international food datasets for greenhouse gas emission (GHGe) and water use data were sourced.
- Scheelbeek P et al. Health impacts and environmental footprints of diets that meet the Eatwell Guide recommendations: analyses of multiple UK studies. BMJ Open 2020;10:e037554. Available online: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/8/e037554
- Carbon Trust. The Eatwell guide: a more sustainable diet. London, UK: The Carbon Trust, 2016. Available online https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/the-eatwell-guide-a-more-sustainable-diet
- Willett W et al. Food in the anthropocene: the EAT–lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 2019;393:447–92
- Springmann M et al. The healthiness and sustainability of national and global food based dietary guidelines: modelling study. BMJ 2020;370:m2322. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2322