Article appeared in issue 2, 2023
New research reveals our taste for a sustainable diet, but confusion could be a barrier to implementing change
There is a growing move towards buying and eating sustainably, but do we really understand what it all means? New research conducted on behalf of the National Dairy Council (NDC)shows that the term ‘plant-based’, which is linked to the idea of sustainable eating, is confusing for Irish consumers. Almost half of those asked believed plant-based eating referred to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and a further 15% didn’t know what it meant at all. “Given it’s a term that is used frequently in relation to eating sustainably, this is an important finding,” says Dr Aifric O’Sullivan, assistant professor at University College Dublin's School of Agriculture and Food Science, and the principal investigator of the myplantdiet research. “We know that Irish diets are not sustainable from both an environmental and health perspective, so any confusion is a barrier, and we need to be clearer about what we need people to do to eat more sustainably,” she explains.
And it doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Incorporating small changes into your diet and buying choices could be the key to shifting towards more sustainable eating.
Don’t cut, add instead
Definitions of a plant-based diet vary, but Aifric explains that it is based mostly on plants, including cereals and breads, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds but that it also includes moderate amounts of animal-based products like meat, eggs, fish and dairy.
Dietitian, Sarah Keogh believes that reducing the amount of animal protein we are consuming – for our health, and the planet’s – and increasing our intake of fruit and vegetables, or having an additional meat-free meal a week, is a more-achievable and long-lasting aim.
Sarah explains: “Some people have the idea that plant-based means no animal products at all and that stops them from making changes. From a nutritional point of view, we want people eating more plant foods, but they don’t necessarily have to cut out animal foods to do that, just maybe reduce them. We know in Ireland that the average fruit and vegetable intake is three and a half servings a day, whereas the ideal number is five to seven servings. If you told a lot of Irish people, who are very much married to their meat, ‘you’ve to cut that out’, you’re not going to get very far. But if you suggest adding in more fruit or vegetables, it makes it easier for people to think in terms of a plant-based diet.”
“The Irish food pyramid, which recommends varying proportions of both plant and animal foods, is a good example of a plant-based diet if we were to actually follow it,” Aifric adds.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Health Organization, sustainable healthy diets1 should be:
1. Nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy;
2. Culturally acceptable and accessible;
3. Economically fair and affordable; and
4. Environmentally protective (respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems).
Interpreting a plant-based diet to mean omitting animal protein entirely could well be a barrier to people making more realistic changes to their current diets, says Sarah, as well as having a negative impact on their health.
“I find that many people last about three months on a vegan diet before going back to their previous diet. Making smaller, sustainable changes may have a greater effect in the long run. While only four per cent said that they had adopted a vegan diet, four times as many said they had cooked more vegetarian dinners during the week, showing that plant-based dishes that also include dairy and eggs are likely to be more acceptable.”
“The big gap I see all the time is cutting out dairy and not replacing the calcium. It can be done, but I rarely meet someone who is successfully doing it. This research throws up some inaccurate perceptions around how much dairy we actually consume in Ireland. Around half of the sample said we eat about the right amount of dairy, while over a third thought we consume too much. The reality is that, on average, the majority of adults only consume two of their three recommended portions of dairy as milk, cheese or yoghurt. As dairy products are nutrient-rich foods and are large contributors to nutrients like calcium, riboflavin, vitamins A and B12 in the Irish diet, we need to be careful about overly simplistic messages to reduce animal foods.
“We talk about calcium in green vegetables but the amount that you would have to eat to hit calcium targets is extraordinary. If you are making changes, it’s preferable to think about what you are adding in.”
Aifric agrees, saying that making drastic changes to a diet is unlikely to work. “Some people don’t eat a lot of meat for example so general advice to reduce may not be helpful or may lead to nutritional deficiencies. Others may need more guidance about how to increase plant foods in their diets while maintaining balance.”
Making better choices
Where healthy and sustainable cuts can be made, she says, is in the amount of treats we consume. “We also forget that high-fat and sugar treats, wine, or even coffee have a carbon footprint too but are not actually essential or even highly nutritious so it’s good to see that a third of people in the NDC survey said they were trying to consume less.”
Swapping a chocolate bar for a piece of fruit is an easy win for our health, says Sarah. “There is cancer research showing that if you add an extra serving of fruit or veg, you reduce your risk of cancer by potentially 13 per cent, over your lifetime. So, there’s lots to be done by putting a spoon of carrots on your plate.”
Sarah believes that we can make changes beyond what we are putting on our plate. “When it comes to sustainability, there is so much we can look at: where our food is coming from, how far it travels, the amount of food we throw away.” The good news is that around half of those asked said they were trying to only consume what they needed and were trying to reduce food waste through better planning.
“This is really encouraging,” says Sarah, “as it shows the appetite is there for change and that people are doing what they can within their own means. As food prices continue to soar, it’s not surprising that choosing foods that are affordable and nutritious are top of mind and are important considerations as we develop guidance on eating more sustainably too. We need to make eating sustainably achievable for as many people as possible.”
1 FAO and WHO. 2019. Sustainable healthy diets – Guiding principles. Rome.