Healthy diets to combat malnutrition and climate change

The global food system faces major challenges and trends related to rapid urbanization, changing diets, climate change, political uncertainties, and anti-globalization sentiments.

At the same time, there has been growing recognition that, in addition to addressing multiple burdens of malnutrition, there is an increasing need to seek an environmentally sustainable food system in light of climate change. 

The new EAT-Lancet report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, which I had the pleasure of contributing to as a Commission member, provides strategies for countries and stakeholders to navigate food systems at a critical crossroads.

Food systems play a key role in nurturing human health and supporting environmental sustainability, yet currently, they are threatening both.

Thus, global efforts are urgently needed to collectively transform diets and food production.

In this regard, the report draws from the latest evidence from around the globe, including the International Food Policy Research Institute’s IMPACT model, to present scientific targets as well as overall strategies for food systems.

As the report highlights, transforming to healthy diets by 2050 will require drastic changes. Global consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, will need to double, while over consumption of foods like added sugars and red meat will need to be more than halved (primarily to address excessive consumption in wealthier countries).

At the same time, it will be equally important to take a differentiated approach for healthy and sustainable diets in developing countries and for poor populations. For many developing countries and the poor, undernutrition and access to healthy foods remain as persistent challenges, as noted in the report.

Small amounts of animal-sourced foods (ASFs) (like dairy, eggs, fish or chicken) for young children and women during pregnancy and lactation is crucial for nutrition and health, especially in poor populations. For instance, research finds a strong association between reduction in stunting and ASF consumption.

Furthermore, the accessibility and affordability of healthy and nutritious foods – both animal-sourced and plant-based—will be key. Many nutrient-dense foods (such as fruits, vegetables, and animal foods) are highly perishable, often making prices significantly higher than that of ultra-processed, nutrient-poor, and calorie-dense staple foods. 

This makes cost a barrier to the consumption of healthy diets among the poor, as seen in urban Malawi as well as in many other countries. A study in Ethiopia found that doubling the price of dairy reduces consumption by about half. 

Promoting enhanced production and productivity of healthy and nutritious foods, while also improving markets in low-income countries will be important to lower prices and increase accessibility of healthy and sustainable diets.

Healthy and sustainable diets may look different from country to country, and we will need more evidence on what drives and challenges the diets of various populations. For the transformation of food systems to ensure human and planetary health for all, it will be crucial for stakeholders to continue to work together in sharing experiences and expanding the knowledge base.

The writer is a Director General of IFPRI and a member of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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