Published on Agriculture & Food

Transforming food systems for sustainable healthy diets: a global imperative

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IFPRI report

Poor diets have wide-ranging impacts, from malnutrition to noncommunicable diseases accounting for more than 73 percent of deaths globally. On the other hand, improving diets could save lives. So, what are healthy diets, and how should we be transforming food systems to achieve them?

Healthy diets provide the nutrients needed for an active, healthy life. They include a diversity of foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and animal-source foods, and have limited sugar, salt and fat.

While it’s clear that healthy diets are needed to prevent malnutrition and disease, for many people around the world, healthy diets are often not desirable, affordable, accessible, or available. The reasons are complex and interconnected. Through our work on diets and food environments in low- and middle-income countries, for example, we see that people are increasingly eating cheap and unhealthy ultra-processed foods as a result of changing lifestyles coupled with intensive advertising and marketing campaigns. By contrast, many nutritious foods are increasingly unaffordable and are often inaccessible for many people, especially marginalized populations.

In addition, food systems need to increasingly take climate change and environmental constraints into account. It has been estimated that food systems produce one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and often negatively affect land quality, water use, and biodiversity. In turn, climate change and natural resource degradation harm our food supply and the nutritional content of crops.

Improving diets, and reducing their impact on the environment, therefore, are global imperatives that require us to tackle health and sustainability as two sides of the same coin. The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition underscores the need for a comprehensive approach that places healthy diets at the core, while embracing economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability.

Prioritizing diets as a critical entry point for tackling all forms of malnutrition allows us to consider the wide range of possible policies and actions to meet realistic, measurable goals for food systems transformation.

In our newly released Global Food Policy Report on “Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Nutrition,” we emphasize the need for sustainable healthy diets and provide evidence-based recommendations on ways to make the foods that form these diets more desirable, affordable, accessible, and available.

This holistic approach recognizes the interplay between dietary patterns, food environments, production and policies, together with broader societal and environmental factors.

Optimal dietary intake involves consuming adequate quantities from diverse food groups while avoiding overconsumption of unhealthy foods. Achieving this will require policies and actions adapted to each country context, that focus on improving supply, food environments, and demand. Further leveraging food systems to achieve nutrition and health outcomes will require  linking actions around food systems to improve diets with complementary systems like health and social protection.

For example, we need solutions like behavior change communication coupled with social assistance programs that can address some of the primary barriers to sustainable healthy diets and help directly shift consumer preferences toward healthier food choices. We also need to address well-known challenges around the commercial production and marketing of ultra-processed and other unhealthy foods, as well as increasing the supply of diverse, safe, and affordable nutritious food like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and animal source foods.  

Changes in food environments such as using regulations and laws to support healthy food environments are critical in this regard.  Affordability is an important aspect that requires us to promote pro-poor economic growth, realigning agricultural policies to support nutrient-dense foods, and improving infrastructure and logistics to lower the relative cost of healthy foods and improve their accessibility and availability.  

This agenda will require coordinating the actions of diverse stakeholders and navigating different interests. Trade-offs need to be identified and negotiated across health, economic, sustainability, and development goals.

We also need to address remaining data gaps to inform programs and policies and to measure impact. Despite substantial efforts, publicly available information on dietary intake patterns, drivers of food choice, food environments, and environmental impacts remains insufficient.

Last, but not least, we need a strong and sustained global commitment to facilitating sustainable healthy diets. Although global commitments on nutrition are strong, the strategies, financing, and accountability mechanisms required for the world to meet Sustainable Development Goal 2 on malnutrition are lagging behind. In order to get there, we need to identify successes and learn from failures.

The future of the world's most vulnerable people hinges on our ability to make significant progress in ensuring healthy diets. It's time to prioritize this agenda.

Purnima Menon

Senior Director, Food and Nutrition Policy, CGIAR and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Deanna Olney

Director of the Nutrition, Diets and Health Unit at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

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