How are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets Relevant to Nutrition and Dietetic Practice?

The relationships between diets, dietary patterns and human nutrition is one that you are very familiar with. In this section, we integrate how food systems and sustainability mediate some of that relationship, and why that matters to your practice. In this Learning Module, we will direct you to resources in the Toolkit that help you to answer the following questions:

  • How do dietary patterns, food systems sustainability, and health relate?
  • In what ways is this relevant to nutrition and dietetics practitioners?

How do dietary patterns, food systems sustainability, and health relate?

Different foods and dietary patterns have differing impacts on certain ecological outcomes, such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and water quality. For example, it is well established that (in general) diets that have a higher proportion of plant foods lead to better environmental outcomes. Therefore, certain dietary patterns are “better” for environmental sustainability, just like certain diets are better for health outcomes. The ways that foods are produced, distributed, processed, and retailed, as well as factors like economic structures (all aspects of the food system) are responsible for these different levels of impact. These food system factors also impact the sustainability of social systems, impacting important issues such as equity, access to healthy food, and an ability to influence your own food system. As dietary choices and food systems are impacting social and ecological systems, these are in turn affecting food systems, dietary choices, and health outcomes. The relationship is reciprocal.

In this section we encourage you to explore these issues more deeply: read How are food systems and health connected and influenced? (use this hyperlink to the online chapter section Section 7.1) published online as part of foodsource by the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN). Pay particular attention to Chapter 7.1.1, which summarizes many existing aspects of unsustainable food systems (inequity, water pollution, foodborne pathogens, etc.) and the health consequences of these. Use the below link to download the pdf of the whole chapter directly. Feel free to explore the whole chapter if there are other relationships you want to better understand.

Next we encourage you to explore Part 1 and Part 3 of the The Role of Dietitians in Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Diets (online link), a paper published by Dietitians of Canada in 2020. These will provide a much more detailed exploration of the environmental, social and health impacts of food systems and diets. We will return to Part 2 in the next question.

Read

Reflect

After reading and exploring these two documents, reflect on the following questions.

  1. Describe 3 examples of how dietary choices and patterns impact sustainability of our food systems?
  2. Descrive 3 examples of how unsustainable conditions in our food systems impact diets and human health?
  3. The readings present global data. Which of these are happening in your country, or community? Can you think of examples that demonstrate these relationships?

Keep Learning

We encourage you to keep exploring how dietary patterns impact food systems sustainability, and vice versa. There is continually emerging research and discussion from the Food Climate Research Network. You can look at some topic-specific relationships between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relationship to nutrition using the the SDG Briefs. We strongly encourage you to examine how these issues manifest in your community, and speak with your clients and community members about how they are being affected.

In what ways is this relevant to nutrition and dietetics practitioners?

These issues are relevant to everyone, and nutrition and dietetics practitioners are very well positioned to contribute positively because you work in various roles throughout food systems. Nutrition and dietetic practitioners around the world define these titles slightly differently, depending on the region and place. What you have in common is work to improve nutritional health of individuals and groups, from the household to the global level. The sustainability of food systems have direct impacts on your work in many ways.

In this section we encourage you to listen to dietitians talking about how this knowledge is highly relevant to improved service provision in dietetics. We have chosen the webinar Benefits of Plant-Based Foods in Institutional Food Service
with Pamela Fergusson as a great example of the importance and co-benefits of environmentally sustainable food choices. Alternately, listen to Truth, Reconciliation & Food with Fiona Devereaux and colleagues, who discuss concepts critical to social sustainability, and how they impact food systems and dietetic practice. Both webinars are paid access for non-Dietitians of Canada members (<$20.00CAD). If this is a barrier, you can skip to the SDG Briefs, and choose two that are interesting to you.

Next, we ask you to read about examples of roles that dietitians can and are taking to contribute to sustainable food systems. For this we redirect you to Part 2 of the Canadian publication, The Role of Dietitians in Sustainable Food Systems and Sustainable Diets, introduced in the previous question in this Learning Module. After which, explore the SDG Briefs, which outline not only the relevance to practice, but generate suggestions for potential roles for dietetics. Choose one or two that interest you.

Listen

Truth, Reconciliation & Food
with Fiona Devereaux and colleagues

Read

Reflect

After listening and reading, reflect on the following questions.

  1. In what ways is contributing to sustainable food systems and diets relevant to the goals you have in your practice? Think of ways that your clients, or your employer, benefit from making more sustainable choices. This could be about ecological or social sustainability, or both!
  2. What are 3 ways that you could contribute to sustainable food systems and diets in your current role as a nutritionist or dietitian?
  3. Other than the ones relevant to you, what are 3 additional roles or actions that nutrition and dietetics practitioners can use to contribute to sustainable food systems and diets?

Keep Learning

We encourage you to continue to explore different ways this is relevant to your practice. Talk to your colleagues about their ideas for how sustainable food systems could benefit their practice. Continue to explore more SDG Briefs for new topics and ideas. Explore the Examples of Sustainability in Practice from your colleagues to get a sense of how and why dietitians are getting involved. You can participate in the Discussion Forum if you want to pose questions about how your colleagues are finding co-benefits between sustainability and nutrition.

Several nutrition and dietetics associations are officially recognizing the relevance of sustainable food systems and diets to practice through role and/or position papers. See how nations are explaining the relevance:

This 2007 document is a good place to begin. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has recently published a new paper on this topic which is not ready for release at this time. It will be updated when it is available for sharing.

Summary

In this Learning Module, you explored resources in the toolkit that help you to answer the following questions:

  • How do dietary patterns, food systems sustainability, and health relate?
  • In what ways is this relevant to nutrition and dietetics practitioners?

To continue learning about how these concepts apply to your practice, explore the next learning module: How to Contribute to Sustainable Food Systems and Diets in Your Practice.