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Exploring dietary guidelines based on ecological and nutritional values: A comparison of six dietary patterns

Recognizing the limitations of dietary guidelines in including sustainability issues this paper tests six different diets for their nutritional and sustainability performance.

The authors explore diets that represent a range of foods – including animal products, fruits and vegetables. They calculate the greenhouse gas emissions and land use of the most consumed items from the diets using life cycle assessment and conclude that dietary guidelines concerned with both a health focus and a low animal protein content represent the most viable option for health and sustainability.


The objective of this study was to explore the synergies between nutritionally healthy and ecologically sustainable diets. The aim was to explore the possibilities for future integrated dietary guidelines that support consumers to make informed dietary choices based on both ecological and nutritional values. We developed a score system for health and sustainability. Subsequently, we tested six different diets: current average Dutch, official ’recommended’ Dutch, semi-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan and Mediterranean. For the sustainability rating, we used the Life Cycle Assessment, measuring the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and land use (LU). For the health rating, we used ten nutritional indicators. By comparing the overall scores we found that the consumption of meat, dairy products, extras, such as snacks, sweets, pastries, and beverages, in that order, are largely responsible for low sustainability scores. Simultaneously, these food groups contribute to low health scores. We developed a matrix that illustrates that the health and sustainability scores of all six diets go largely hand in hand. Fig. 1 provides a visualisation of the position of the six diets in the full health and sustainability spectrum. This matrix with scores can be considered a first step in the development of a tool to measure both sustainability and health issues of specific food patterns. In selecting the diets, we examined two directions: health focus diets and the animal protein reduction diets. The Mediterranean diet is generally the health focus option with a high sustainability score. We conclude that guidelines oriented in between the two directions (i.e., semi- and pesco-vegetarian) are the option with the optimal synergy between health and sustainability.


C. van Dooren, Mari Marinussen, Hans Blonk, Harry Aiking, Pier Vellinga, Exploring dietary guidelines based on ecological and nutritional values: A comparison of six dietary patterns, Food Policy, Volume 44, February 2014, Pages 36-46, ISSN 0306-9192

Read the full study here.

You can also read more about food and life cycle assessment in our Research library here. You can also browse our research library by searching for the key words “ecological sustainability + nutrition”. For further information, see also our latest discussion papers on sustainable diets: What is a sustainable healthy diet? & Changing to healthier and more sustainable diets: how can this be achieved?

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