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Adopting more stringent guidelines in the UK could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70% and reduce diet-related deaths by more than 100,000 a year. 

Researchers led by Dr Marco Springmann from the Nuffield Department of Population Health, have found that most dietary recommendations provided by national governments are not compatible with global environmental and health targets such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Recommending stricter limits on meat and dairy, and encouraging increased consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts would be both healthier and lower in environmental impacts, their study found.

A team at the LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) programme at the University of Oxford, and at Harvard, Tufts and Adelaide universities, looked at dietary recommendations from 85 countries. The paper, published today in The BMJ, is the first of its kind to analyse both the health and environmental outcomes of national dietary guidelines around the world.

The researchers modelled the adoption of guidelines at both the national and global level, and compared the impacts to global environmental and health targets that governments have agreed to and that are related to diets. These include, for example, the goal to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by a third, and the agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

On average, adoption of national dietary guidelines was associated with a 15% reduction in premature mortality, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the food system of 13%. However, a third of guidelines were incompatible with the global health agenda on non-communicable diseases, and between 67% and 87% were incompatible with the Paris Climate Agreement and other environmental targets. Taken together, 98% of national guidelines were incompatible with at least one global health and environmental target, meaning that even if the whole world followed them, we would still fail to meet the targets governments have signed up to.

The study also assessed the global dietary recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the more comprehensive and ambitious recommendations of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. It found that if populations followed the WHO recommendations it would likely result in health and environmental outcomes similar to those from following current national guidelines. However, adoption of the EAT-Lancet recommendations was associated with a third greater reduction in premature mortality, more than three times greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and general attainment of the global health and environmental targets.

In the UK, for example, adoption of guidelines in line with EAT-Lancet recommendations could mean a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the food system of 70%, and a reduction in diet-related deaths of 104,000, compared with only 17% and 78,000 if everyone were to adhere to the current national guidelines. The study also found that, if everybody around the world followed the UK’s current national dietary guidelines, then food-related emissions would exceed limits set for avoiding dangerous levels of climate change by more than threefold.

The researchers recommend:

  • Reforming national and WHO dietary guidelines in line with the current scientific understanding on healthy and sustainable diets, and providing concrete examples in terms of different dietary traditions and patterns, including plant-based ones which, when well composed, were found to be amongst the healthiest and most sustainable.
  • Improving the environmental sustainability of dietary guidelines by providing more stringent recommendations on limiting the consumption of animal-source foods, in particular beef and dairy, in regions where they are consumed in large quantities.
  • In most regions, improving the healthiness of dietary guidelines by providing clear advice on increasing the intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, reducing the intake of red and processed meat, and highlighting the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Addressing the currently poor adherence to dietary guidelines by investing in measures that would help populations improve their diets, such as health promotion programmes, aligning menus in school and work-place canteens, and regulating the food sector for its health and environmental impacts.

Dr Marco Springmann said ‘Most national food based dietary guidelines shy away from providing clear recommendations on limiting the consumption of animal source foods, despite their exceptionally high emissions and resource use, and, in the case of red and processed meat, their clear association with diet-related diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.’

He stressed that reforming dietary guidelines is an important starting point for encouraging the uptake of healthy and sustainable diets, but it also needs clear and consistent policy support to ensure that people actually follow them.

‘The best dietary guidelines are meaningless if they are not backed up by targeted health promotion programmes and procurement standards, or if regulation is not aligned across departments and sectors. Making sure recommendations on healthy and sustainable eating are also reflected in a country’s agricultural policy and in the regulation of the food sector is an essential aspect for improving the healthiness of diets and the environmental impacts of the food system.’