Eating a healthy, balanced diet is no longer just about getting the right mix of vitamins, minerals, protein and fat into your meals. Today, it can also mean balancing your needs with the needs of the planet. So, how do you do that?


You could decide to go vegan – research shows cutting out meat and dairy is one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the planet; flexitarian – a ‘casual vegetarian’ diet; or plant-based – any diet that focus on eating food from plant sources. They all sound great in theory, but what does that actually look like on your plate? What foods should you be eating if you want to follow a sustainable diet?

We’ve found the 10 most sustainable foods everyone should eat, and the worst food in the world from an environmental perspective.

What is a sustainable food?

Good question. The WHO says sustainable diets ‘promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing [and] have low environmental pressure and impact’. In other words, they keep you and the planet healthy. This means you’ll need to put some thought into how your food is produced and where it comes from; we know not all vegan food is environmentally friendly.

Essentially, a sustainable food should have a low carbon footprint, and not contribute to deforestation, water scarcity, overfishing or loss of biodiversity. It should also provide you with enough nutrients to live a healthy, happy life – not just stop you from getting ill. It sounds a lot to ask, but there a number of foods that fit the bill.

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1. Pulses

Pulses include lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans: these tiny plants are nutritional powerhouses. The UN says they’re packed with protein, low in fat, rich in soluble fibre and have been found to help reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Pulses also have an incredible ability to ‘self-fertilise’ the soil; their roots contain bacteria that convert nitrogen in the air into a different form that can be used by plants, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers. Plus, pulses use less land to produce more protein – it takes nearly 100 times more land to produce a gram of protein from lamb or beef versus peas or tofu.

2. Leafy greens

The WWF calls dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, watercress and broccoli ‘the most versatile and nutritious of all types of vegetables’. They’ve been shown to help lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes, and are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

What’s more, they’re a very planet-friendly food. They’re fast growing (so farmers can get more than one harvest a year) and have very low carbon emissions during their growing and harvesting processes. But make sure you do eat them – the UK throws away 178 million bags of salad every year, and food waste is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases.

3. Mushrooms

The humble mushroom was actually considered ‘the food of the Gods’ by the Romans! Fungi are rich in a number of nutrients such as B vitamins and especially vitamin D, which we normally make via the sun’s rays on our skin. Their taste and texture make them ideal meat substitutes, or for bulking out meat dishes.

The American Mushroom Institute says a kilogram of mushrooms produces less than 0.7kg of CO2, while other (mushroom-sponsored) studies found they need less water and less energy than most other agricultural crops. There are some concerns that mushrooms themselves release large amounts of CO2, but researchers say we could pipe that carbon back into greenhouses to grow other crops.

4. Locally grown fruits

This might seem obvious – the further a food has to travel, the greater its carbon footprint – but the stats are so shocking, it bears repeating. Only 7% of the fruits we eat in the UK are grown here; the rest are imported, with 70% from outside Europe.

The water footprint (WF) of imported fruits is huge compared with home-grown – raspberries’ WF is 53 times greater and plums’ 45 times. Imported apples, pears and strawberries have a WF 6-10 times higher than those grown on UK soil. One answer is to only eat what’s in season – and freeze fresh fruit in summer – while scientists also suggest building more UK ripening facilities to reduce the impact of refrigerated transport. Until then, get to know your Pippins from your Pig’s Snout.

5. Seaweed

Seaweed is becoming more popular – not just as an ingredient in dishes like sushi or laverbread, but seaweed extracts such as agar can be used as vegan alternatives to gelatine. The health benefits vary depending on the type of seaweed but in general, seaweed is rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, antioxidants and iodine.

It has planet health benefits, too. Algae, including seaweed, produces around 50% of all the oxygen on earth, it can absorb carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphate in the sea – converting agricultural run-off – and can be harvested several times a year, providing an alternative income for coastal communities to avoid over-fishing.

6. Mussels

Staying under the sea, mussels and other bivalves like clams should be on your sustainable menu. They contain more protein than many meat and plant crops, and have high levels of omega-3s, iron, zinc and magnesium. They’re so nutrient-dense, experts say they’re one of the best ways we can feed a growing global population.

Mussels can also help us clean up the oceans. Like all bivalves, they feed by filtering water. This removes waste particles, like industrial fertilisers, and carbon dioxide. Farmed mussels don’t use any land, fresh water or feed, plus the ropes they’re grown on can provide habitats for other sea creatures. Paella, anyone?

7. Cereals and grains

Most of us know that cereals and grains should make up a large part of a healthy, balanced diet, but the WWF warns that ‘there is a pressing need to vary the types of cereals and grains grown and eaten’. That’s because relying on one or two crops has negative consequences for both the environment and our health.

From an environmental perspective, monoculture (only growing one crop) has an impact on soil health – so farmers need to use extra fertilisers – and increases the risk of disease and pest outbreaks, so large amounts of pesticides and herbicides are then sprayed on the crop. Those chemicals in our food aren’t great for us, and we’re missing out on a range of vitamins and minerals if we only eat certain cereals and grains, such as white rice, maize or wheat.

Next time you go shopping, look for alternatives such as buckwheat, teff, spelt and quinoa. Not only will you get out of your cooking comfort zone, you’re also supporting your long-term health and that of the planet.

8. Grass-fed beef

Beef?! On a sustainable foods list?! Yes – but hear us out. One of the biggest arguments against everyone going vegan is that some land currently used for grazing cattle isn’t suitable for growing crops. Let’s assume it can be left as grassland for cows. If that land is also part of a regenerative farm, the farmer will be rearing livestock alongside growing crops in a bid to improve soil health.

The natural fertiliser produced by the cows reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilisers, while the animals’ hooves churning up the soil also helps it to absorb more carbon. There is some research to show that grass-fed beef can be carbon-negative in the short term and carbon-neutral in the long term, but other scientists argue that even if grass-fed cows do contribute to storing carbon, this is only under ideal conditions. So, there are benefits to rearing grass-fed cattle but they’re not going to solve climate change alone.

The EAT-Lancet Commission, which developed the planet healthy diet, does allow for eating some red meat and if you are going to eat beef, it should be the ‘least-worst’ option. But remember to go for locally grown grass-feed beef to further reduce its carbon footprint.

9. Oats

Not convinced by grass-fed beef? There are some crops that will thrive in the most inhospitable places – enter, oats. They can grow at high altitudes and without chemical fertilisers, and can be sown between other crop harvests to help replenish the soil; known as a ‘break crop’. Oat milk uses a lot less water than other plant alternatives too, such as soy or rice milk.

Oats could also be called a ‘superfood’. They’re known to help lower bad cholesterol levels and can reduce high blood pressure, while serving up decent amounts of fibre and vitamins such as magnesium and zinc per serving. Again, stick to local varieties rather than imported oats to reduce the environmental impact of transport.

10. Figs

Figs taste good and do good. For starters, nearly 1,300 bird and mammal species eat figs – making them one of the most relied-on fruits on the planet – who then go on to spread the seeds far and wide. Some scientists say planting fig trees can help regenerate deforested landscapes, restoring biodiversity, while the trees are also pretty resilient to climate change.

For us, figs can help with digestion, weight management, bone health and high blood pressure. Figs grow in most Mediterranean countries, reducing their food miles, but you could even plant a few varieties in the back garden. And you’ll get an Adam and Eve fancy dress costume for free…

And the worst?

No surprises here – there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence to show beef and dairy are the worst foods for us and the planet. Greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, transport costs and low amounts of nutrition for all the effort involved, combine to make farmed meat and dairy products a bad choice for everyone.

Research by the Food Standards Agency found 73% of us want to buy food with a low environmental impact. The bad news is getting that information included on food labels is still some way off, but the good news is that articles like this can help.


Next time you’re planning meals, make the planet a guest at your table. This will help ensure there’s always enough food available for everyone.

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