Sustainability: nutrition and dietetic students’ perceptions (2020)

Citation: Burkhart S, Verdonck M, Ashford T, Maher J. Sustainability: Nutrition and Dietetic Students’ Perceptions. Sustainability. 2020; 12(3):1072. 

Relevant to: 

Dietetic and nutrition educators. 


This Australian study explored nutrition and dietetic undergraduate students’ self-reported views and actions related to sustainability, with a view to building a holistic curriculum that includes content and competencies required to address UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Bottom line for nutrition practice:

The researchers report that while students showed a high level of awareness of the general importance of sustainability, their knowledge related to it was superficial. The authors also suggest that their findings of strong core beliefs and values in students related to sustainability could motivate interest in further learning about the issues. The authors discuss and suggest systemic pedagogical approaches.   


Opportunities exist for nutrition and dietetic (N&D) professionals to contribute to sustainable development and support actions towards the attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD’s). Students undertaking higher education are well-placed to develop skills and capabilities in creative and critical problem solving for sustainability. However, there is limited literature exploring nutrition and dietetic students’ perceptions of sustainability that would help to inform an effective and constructively aligned embedding of sustainability content and active learning opportunities into curriculum. This descriptive cohort study design utilised a 17-question online survey to explore 95 Australian N&D undergraduate students’ self-reported familiarity with and perceived importance of sustainability and related concepts, and view of sustainability for future practice.

Participants reported being more familiar with the term environmental sustainability and related concepts than economic or social sustainability. Varying levels of familiarity of 42 sustainability related concepts within economic resilience, environmental integrity, social development and cross-cutting issues were reported. Most participants (82%, n=78) reported sustainability was very important in general (82%, n=78), and for professional practice (63%, n=60). Over half of the participants identified government led initiatives to address the future of society (65%, n=71). Our study highlights the complexity of sustainability in a discipline specific context and the need for understanding students’ perceptions of sustainability to inform N&D curriculum design. 

Details of results:

Most nutrition and dietetic students (82%) reported that sustainability in general is a very important issue, and the majority (92.5%) reported that it is very important or important to their future practice. Ninety-seven % were familiar with the term sustainability. Seventy-five % were very or quite familiar with environmental sustainability, compared to 47% for economic and 22% for social sustainability. When delving deeper into concepts related to these three terms, over 75% were familiar with the concepts of highly processed foods (environmental); secure livelihoods (economic); and the relationship between local foods and the economy (economic).  

On the other hand, students were less familiar with the use of food and agriculture policies (41.1%); labour rights (28.3%); national and global level food security (27.4%), social justice in the food system (25.3%); living conditions of farm labourers (41.1%), farmland protection (35.5%); economic viability of the agriculture sector (37.2%); resilience to economic risk (37.2%), opportunity to contribute to local or global markets (29.5%); preservation of rural communities (28.4%) and social capital (27.4%).  

Half of the students reported that sustainability often or always influenced their daily decisions. Students also indicated a need for government led sustainability initiatives. 

The authors suggest that their findings support the idea of embedding holistic, systems thinking and other pedagogical approaches across the curriculum in order to lay a foundation to understand the relationships between sustainability and nutrition and dietetics. Consistent use of language across courses is also important. 

 Of additional interest:

The authors suggest that a program curriculum mapping exercise to embed sustainability may be well received by students.   

Editor’s comment: 


Open access link to article: 

Conflict of interest/ Funding: 

none declared  

External relevant links: 


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