Comparison of food recommendations varying in sustainability: Impact on dietary intake and motivation to follow recommendations (2020)

Citation: Veltkamp M, Anschutz DJ, Kremers SP, Holland RW. Comparison of food recommendations varying in sustainability: Impact on dietary intake and motivation to follow recommendations. Journal of Health Psychology. 2020;25(3):373-386. doi:10.1177/1359105317718056 

Relevant to: 

Dietitians-Nutritionists working in public health, community and clinical settings, particularly for those working with individuals and groups on dietary choices and change.   


This Dutch intervention study compared compliance with dietary recommendations that were of equal nutritional value, where one group followed a standard healthy diet, and the other a more environmentally sustainable/ plant-based diet. Two groups of female participants were assigned randomly, and they followed the diet for three weeks. All recommendations were sent electronically, and results were self-reported; the study was not done in a clinical setting. Researchers also examined drivers of eating behavior across food categories.  

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

Findings showed that the group following the sustainable diet group had lower overall compliance, followed the diet for less long, had less motivation to continue, and reported it as less feasible to comply to than the group following the standard healthy diet.  

 In looking at factors influencing what individuals eat, across all food categories, taste/ preference was the main predictor of consumption, and soya had the lowest “liking” ranking. The findings led authors to stress the need to consider the many factors influencing compliance; in particular, personal preferences should be considered when providing dietary recommendations regarding sustainability. The authors also suggest that different approaches to dietary change should be taken, depending on the factor influencing intake of a specific food.  


Food recommendations increasingly focus on sustainability in addition to nutritional value. By providing participants with standard versus sustainable (plant-based) dietary recommendations for 3 weeks, the present research tested the impact of recommendations on dietary compliance. Furthermore, predictors of food intake were tested across food categories. Participants in the sustainable diet condition complied less with recommendations as compared to those in the standard diet condition and were less motivated to continue complying after the intervention. Taste was the main predictor of intake across food categories. Together, this stresses the importance of considering factors stimulating consumers’ compliance when formulating food recommendations. 

Details of results: 

The sustainable diet in this study was plant-based, where soy and nut intake were higher and meat, dairy and fish lower than the standard healthy diet; carbon footprint and land-use were used to define sustainability. As noted in the limitations, this meant that recommendations were limited to moving toward a more plant-based diet, rather than other potential changes such as reducing instead of removing meat intake, replacing ingredients or products with lower environmental impacts, or waste reduction.  

The authors discuss that the findings are likely explained by the fact that the sustainable diet deviated from the participants’ current diet more than the standard healthy diet. Since changes that are too large can be demotivating, the authors propose that “small steps might be more motivating and effective to change behavior as opposed to the single large step tested in this study” (p. 11). Further, as recommendations were sent electronically and the study was not conducted in a clinical setting, recommendations were not tailored to individual factors and preferences. 

This research provides insight into factors affecting the adoption of sustainable dietary patterns. As the authors hypothesized, factors most strongly driving food intake varies per food category. While taste was the strongest predictor of consumption across all categories, habit was found to be particularly important in relation to bread and dairy intake. Additionally, the researchers cite other studies that illustrate that the motivation to consume sustainable products was related only to meat consumption (versus other categories of food). Therefore, the authors suggest that different strategies toward dietary change should be taken, depending on the factor influencing intake of a specific food. For example, increasing knowledge of environmental impacts may work to lower meat consumption, behaviour change approaches might be required shift intake of foods such as bread, and suggestions of flavourful alternatives may be important where taste is the priority.  

Of additional interest:

The authors cite other studies that outline four key categories of the factors that determine eating behaviour and diets: physiological needs and sensory preferences (e.g., taste), cognitive and affective factors (e.g., motivation), environmental and cultural characteristics (e.g., availability and affordability), and habits and routines. They state that recent studies suggest that these dimensions also apply to  sustainable food consumption. 

Editor’s comment:  

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the study is the finding that factors influencing food choice differ between food categories. This suggests that a multipronged approach to sustainable consumption behaviour is required. In a food service setting, this may mean offering alternative choices. In an individual client setting, it may require dietetic-nutrition professionals to provide advice, as the educator needs to be familiar with sustainability issues and food options in any given local context. 

A 2013 study completed by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) constructed a Sustainable “LiveWell Plate” for France, Spain and Sweden, that closely resembled existing dietary patterns and had the potential to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from the current average diet. 

Open access link to article: 


Conflict of interest/ Funding:

The first author is employed within the food industry; all other authors have no conflicts of interests to declare. This work was financially supported by Friesland Campina (a food company in the Netherlands).

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