Sustainable diet policy development: implications of multi-criteria and other approaches, 2008–2017

Lang T, Mason P. Sustainable diet policy development: implications of multi-criteria and other approaches, 2008-2017. Proc Nutr Soc. 2018 Aug;77(3):331-46. 

Relevant to: 

Dietitians-nutritionists working in policy development.  


This paper identifies various policy approaches used by primarily by countries, but also other sectors that have integrated sustainability into dietary guidelines. It then articulates lessons learned from these approaches.  

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

The authors argue that support for sustainable diets is increasing. This is strengthened by global policy agendas such as the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Paris Climate Change Accord, which require action in diet and food systems. The authors suggest that considerable international experience now exists on evidence-based sustainable dietary guidelines, allowing for an analysis of policy approaches.  

Lessons learned are outlined in more detail below, but include the following:  Dietary policy is highly political, and policy advancement is unlikely to be achieved by science and evidence alone. Approaching sustainable diets as multi-criteria (e.g., rather than simply nutrition and environment only) and using a multi-sectoral approach engages a wider scope of sectors who may be more likely to shift current policies toward advancing sustainable diets. The state is an important leader, as they can mediate different interests.  

The authors suggest that nutrition scientists have an important opportunity specifically in relation to sustainability within dietary guidelines; they also encourage nutrition professionals to promote the relationship between diet and sustainability, why this should be of concern to the public, and suggest that they should participate in the development of goals for the food supply that link health, the environment and the economy.  


The objective of the present paper is to draw lessons from policy development on sustainable diets. It considers the emergence of sustainable diets as a policy issue and reviews the environmental challenge to nutrition science as to what a ‘good’ diet is for contemporary policy. It explores the variations in how sustainable diets have been approached by policy-makers. The paper considers how international United Nations and European Union (EU) policy engagement now centres on the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Change Accord, which require changes across food systems. The paper outlines national sustainable diet policy in various countries: Australia, Brazil, France, the Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, UK and USA. While no overarching common framework for sustainable diets has appeared, a policy typology of lessons for sustainable diets is proposed, differentiating (a) orientation and focus, (b) engagement styles and (c) modes of leadership. The paper considers the particularly tortuous rise and fall of UK governmental interest in sustainable diet advice. Initial engagement in the 2000s turned to disengagement in the 2010s, yet some advice has emerged. The 2016 referendum to leave the EU has created a new period of policy uncertainty for the UK food system. This might marginalise attempts to generate sustainable diet advice, but could also be an opportunity for sustainable diets to be a goal for a sustainable UK food system. The role of nutritionists and other food science professions will be significant in this period of policy flux. 

Details of results:

The authors differentiate between three types of policy approaches that have been taken in the development of sustainable dietary guidelines. The first is orientation – whether the approach is simple (nutrition, plus one more factor), complex (multi-criteria), incremental (slow accrual of policy advice), or core (whether non-nutrition issues are approached in an overt or covert way). Second, engagement styles can be soft (e.g., labelling, which puts responsibility on the consumer), hard (e.g., policy regulation) or choice-editing (where action occurs mostly at the pre-consumer level). Third, modes of leadership include state, business and civil society.  

The authors outline lessons from the different policy approaches to sustainable dietary guidelines. 

First, the authors suggest that current discourse is divided over whether policy integration is best addressed through a simple approach or a complex, multi-criteria approach. However, given their observation that political engagement is unlikely to be gained by evidence alone, they suggest that approaching sustainable diets as complex can be advantageous; it is a way to engage a wider scope of sectors who may be more likely to shift current policies toward advancing sustainable diets. Policy tensions at national levels will continue as to whether dietary guidelines should move beyond the purview of health and nutrition to include other areas such as the environment, culture and economics.  

Promoters of sustainable diets should consider focusing guidelines on nutrition, but also using dietary change as a way to advance other criteria (e.g., the Qatar dietary guidelines used breastfeeding to promote sustainability). As noted above, the state can be an effective leader, as they can mediate varied interests. The effectiveness of top-down state approaches, however, remains to be seen.  

Finally, the authors suggest that while sustainable diets have been a politically sensitive policy matter, clear sustainable dietary guidelines are now needed to fulfill the UN SDG and require long-term support and political commitment.  

Of additional interest: 

For those interested in the UK, the paper ends with a reflection of the UK’s experience related sustainable diets (written prior to Brexit).  

See also the book by the same authors: Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System P. Mason and T. Lang. Routledge 2017 

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