Published on Investing in Health

Eating better: How to improve nutrition and the environmental impact of food

Kids eating at a table The global planetary health diet provides a benchmark that considers both human health and the environment, but actual consumption, affordability, and environmental impacts are different across countries. Copyright: Fauzan Ijazah/World Bank

Is the food that we eat good for us? Is it good for the environment? Is it affordable, especially for women and children? While we often think of these questions separately, answering them together helps us understand where diets are today, and where they will have to be in the future to move towards healthier people and a healthier planet.

Moving from global benchmarks to local assessments

Comparing our diets with national food-based dietary guidelines gives an indication of how healthy and nutritious our plate of food is against locally established good practice standards. But these guidelines usually do not factor in the impact on the environment.

The EAT–Lancet Commission’s “planetary health diet” is a benchmark diet that considers both human health and the environment— including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use and biodiversity loss. But while this benchmark proposes a global standard, actual consumption, affordability, and environmental impacts are different across countries.

For example, according to a 2020 study in Nature Food, if all countries adopt the planetary health diet, overall global GHG emissions would go down substantially, but in some, primarily low- and middle-income countries, where these emissions are currently very low, they would increase. Furthermore, as another 2020 study in Global Environmental Change journal points out, different environmentally friendly adjustments to our diets will have different impacts on GHG emissions and water use.

A one-size-fits-all approach to understanding the impact of diets on the environment will not work. Rather, a good start would be to assess dietary pattern, nutritional value, environmental impact, and the cost and affordability of current food consumption at the country-level, and then to compare this to local guidance and across various dietary scenarios.

Figure 1: GHG emissions will increase in Bangladesh if diets adhere to the national dietary guidelines, and they will increase even more if diets adhere to the EAT-Lancet diet

Chart on GHG emissions in Bangladesh
Source: Mehra et al. (2022). “Healthy and Sustainable Diets in Bangladesh.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 10160.

A World Bank and World Food Programme (WFP) analysis in Bangladesh shows how food consumption has changed from 2000 to 2016 (figure 1). In 2016, people in Bangladesh consumed less starchy staples, more fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, and eggs, but also more sugar and oil. While there have been some nutritional gains, the consumption in 2016 still had very large gaps in micronutrient intake. Meanwhile, the country’s GHG emissions from food consumption increased by 15% from 2000 to 2016, largely driven by increases in bovine meat consumption.

This analysis also shows that GHG emissions would increase by 10% if consumption was adjusted to the national dietary guidelines and by more than 20% if adjusted to the planetary health guidelines, largely due to the high recommendations on milk consumption. Thus, it is crucial that investments in agricultural productivity growth and diversification are oriented towards producing less intensively and in a more climate-smart manner.

Other work in Bangladesh (see here and here) has shown that healthy and nutritious diets are unaffordable for many. Some, such as adolescent girls, also have higher nutrient needs relative to energy needs which come at a higher cost and puts them at a greater risk of malnutrition. We also know that, globally, women are disproportionately impacted by the food and nutrition security crisis.

An analysis in Indonesia, conducted by researchers outside of the World Bank, compared current food consumption to a range of dietary scenarios. For each scenario, the nutritional value, GHG emissions, water footprint, and cost were estimated. Such analysis then allows for the exploration of different opportunities to improve nutritional value and affordability while limiting the environmental impact of diets (see also here).

A platform to discover synergies and optimize win-wins

Finding synergies and maximizing win-wins, while minimizing tradeoffs, will be key to transitioning to diets that are healthier for people and the planet. It is crucial that policymakers have access to tools that can help identify these synergies to enable better informed decision-making around food policy.

ENHANCE is a promising tool being developed by the WFP, Capgemini, Zero Hunger Lab of Tilburg University, and Johns Hopkins University. It envisions an open-access platform that uses country-level and subnational analytics to identify synergies among cost, environmental impact, dietary preferences, and nutrient adequacy, including for the most vulnerable, to help inform actions and policies for food systems transformation.

Figure 2: A model for Environment, Nutrition, and Health Analytics for National Consumer and Emergency Diets (ENHANCE)

A model for Environment, Nutrition, and Health Analytics for National Consumer and Emergency Diets

In tandem with developing these tools to better understand the nutrition and environmental impact of diets, the World Bank is supporting governments to assess the opportunity to repurpose agrifood policies for more sustainable and healthier diets.

There are ways to redesign public policies to lower the cost of diets and realize win-wins (see here and here), including:

  • Adapting food production methods for lower environmental impact and supporting production of more nutritious crops
  • Enhancing nutritional value and minimizing nutritional loss in processing and fortification
  • Improving access to fortified and nutritious foods for the most vulnerable in social protection programs and in schools and workplaces
  • Informing consumer preferences through social behavioral change strategies

Transforming our food system to realize benefits to health, nutrition, the environment, and bringing healthy nutritious diets within reach for everyone will require our concerted effort, and tools that use local evidence to inform related decision making are crucial.


Saskia de Pee

Chief Analytics & Science for Food & Nutrition at the Nutrition Division of the United Nations World Food Programme

Felipe F. Dizon

Senior Economist in the Agriculture and Food Global Practice

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