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Published: October 20, 2021

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We hear a lot about the importance of eating healthy or following a diet low in sodium and fat and high in fruits and vegetables. So, what is a sustainable diet and why should we care?

Before we unpack the ingredients of a sustainable diet, though, let’s take a quick look at the general concept of sustainability.

Writes Jessica Rack for The World Energy Foundation:

“The concept of sustainability is one that has been around for as long as humans have: a concern for the future of our resources. Food and water have to come from somewhere, and even the earliest cultures would have had to be thinking about what to do in the lean times, and what would happen if the animals or plants they depended upon were to disappear.

“In the 1980s, the word sustainability began to be used more in terms of the sustainability of how humans live on the planet. Today, the most common definition of sustainability is that of sustainable development, defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987: ‘sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’”

So let’s drill down to diet and look at this definition from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.

What’s on a sustainable plate

Unlike some diets, there is no one diet or set of rules that is sustainable. Rather there are foods and eating practices that are more sustainable than others, meaning that the diet is healthy and has a low impact on the environment and food supply.

A sustainable diet is plant-based, meaning it contains more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes than red meat, dairy, processed foods, added sugars and refined grains.

Medical News Today explains why plant foods are favored over animal products.

“For example, farming an acre of corn for human consumption means that all that food can go directly to feeding a growing human population. For people who eat animal products, the same acre of corn would go toward feeding livestock. However, the animals themselves also take up additional land and resources. So, farming animal foods requires significantly more land.”

Eating locally also promotes sustainability. While availability of fresh food varies across the country, trying to eat more locally produced food reduces transportation costs or “food miles” as well as cost of packaging. For instance, instead of buying peaches year-round only purchase when available from regional farmers. In addition, frequent farmers markets, eat organic and plan meals that reduce waste.

What about popular meal delivery kits such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh and their impact on sustainability?

Well it depends on both the company and the consumer, reports EcoWatch. If a delivery kit helps you eat healthier and reduce food waste, plus you buy from a company that primarily uses recyclable materials and supports local farmers, then such a practice might have sustainable advantages. There’s lots of meal delivery services out there, so shop around to find one that promotes sustainable practices.

While we’re on the subject

Eating a diet rich in plants is just one of 10 habits of “highly sustainable people,” according to Green America. Here are the other nine:

  1. Conserve water
  2. Use eco-friendly, less-toxic products such as cleaning supplies, candles and body care;
  3. Buy fewer clothes (but buy ones that last longer);
  4. Explore ways to make your home more energy efficient;
  5. Bank and invest with socially responsible companies;
  6. Build or renovate with renewable, recycled or salvaged materials;
  7. Reuse and recycle
  8. Walk, bike and use public transit;
  9. When traveling, choose locally owned hotels and support organic restaurants and other green businesses.

Feed Your Body Right: Nutritional Needs After 50

As you age, having a healthy and balanced diet will help you look and feel your best while helping prevent many serious health issues. Learn how in our free guide.

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Author Molly Kavanaugh 2020In the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.

About Kendal at Oberlin: Kendal is a nonprofit life plan community serving older adults in northeast Ohio. Located about one mile from Oberlin College and Conservatory, and about a 40 minute drive from downtown Cleveland, Kendal offers a vibrant resident-led lifestyle with access to music, art and lifelong learning.