Supporting Sustainable Development Goals Through Sustainable Diets
Sustainable diets are healthy diets from sustainable food systems that advance the human condition and conserve ecological resources in socially acceptable ways.
An essential strategy to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is supporting sustainable diets or healthy diets from sustainable food systems that promote the human condition and conserve ecological resources in socially acceptable ways. Despite evidence-based recommendations published in dietary guidelines across the globe, diet-related diseases continue to rise, and food consumption patterns threaten sustainable development (Herforth et al. 2017a; Fisher and Garnett 2016; Hacck and Byker 2014). There is an urgent need for policy to support health-promoting diets; malnutrition, which includes undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies and overweight, obesity, and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), afflicts every nation (Global Panel 2017). Strong evidence links diets to chronic disease and health conditions including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity (Wang and Beydoun 2007; Miech et al. 2009; Ong et al. 2012). At the same time, food production places greater stress on ecosystems compared to all other human activities (West et al. 2014; Foley et al. 2011), while being critically dependent on multiple ecosystem services including water, soil fertility, pollination, and climate regulation (IPCC 2013, 2014). Despite vast resources dedicated to food production and consumption, a notable proportion of what is cultivated is wasted, including food lost, thrown away, or over consumed across the food system (Alexandar and Moran 2017). Food waste poses enormous externalities for ecological, economic, and public health systems (Fox and Fimeche 2013).
The expected rise in global population, coupled with global environmental change, will exacerbate the burden on food production and challenges for supporting healthy diets for all (Campbell et al. 2016). Food production and consumption is increasingly vulnerable to climate change, land-use change, and shifts in markets and policies (Campbell et al. 2016). The current world population of over 7.6 billion is projected to increase to 9.3 billion by 2050 (FAO 2009). On the basis of current patterns of consumption, food production in 2050 may need to be over 50% higher than present levels (Alexandratos and Bruinsma 2012).
While dietary patterns are not mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the provision of sustainable diets is critically important to multiple SDGs (1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15). This entry seeks to illustrate how to apply SDGs to sustainable diets. First, this entry lays out definitions of healthy and sustainable diets in the context of the history of sustainability with respect to diets. Next, this entry highlights pressing sustainability challenges of food systems and diets on the basis of three dimensions of sustainability linked to diets and food systems: (i) nutrition and health, (ii) environmental, and (iii) socioeconomic. These challenges are followed with a sustainable diets framework for addressing each dimension of sustainable diets along with associated metrics for evaluating sustainability components. This work concludes with a framework for including sustainable diets explicitly within the SDGs along with recommendations for advancing healthy and sustainable diets for all.
History and Definitions of Sustainable Diets
In recognition of the linkages between human and environmental health, a sustainable diets approach is increasingly being adopted in the public, private, and policy sectors (Willet et al. 2019; Herforth et al. 2017a). Sustainable diets recognize that food choices are part of complex food systems and food environments with the goal of supporting both human and environmental well-being (Willet et al. 2019; Herforth et al. 2017a). Food environments are the consumer interface of the food system and include natural and built food environments (Herforth and Ahmed 2015). Alongside shifts toward consumption of healthy diets, sustainable diets also consider the way in which food is produced and implications for ecological and socioeconomic dimensions of food systems including biodiversity, ecosystem services, resource use, greenhouse gas emissions, equity, food traditions, access, and food sovereignty (Jones et al. 2016; Mason and Lang 2017; Downs et al. 2017; Herforth et al. 2017a).
The concept of a “sustainable diet” was first proposed in 1986 in reference to a diet that adheres to dietary guidelines for maintaining long-term health while avoiding the degradation of natural resources (Gussow and Clancy 1986). While the concept of sustainable diets was not popularized in policy when it was first referenced in 1986, the concept of sustainability was popularized in policy in the late 1980s. Specifically, sustainability was advanced as a policy framework in 1987 in a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development in order to given equal emphasis to the environment, society, and economy in development (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). This report, titled “Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland report, recognized that a focus on only one area of development was not adequate and defined “sustainable development” as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). However, despite the tremendous strides made by the Brundtland report in bringing attention to multiple areas for supporting resource and social needs of future generations, the concepts of diets and human health were not adequately addressed.
The concept of sustainable diets has more recently gained momentum among global organizations and some individual countries as the need to shift dietary patterns in order to protect the environment, while simultaneously feeding a growing global population with healthy food has become increasingly evident (Willet et al. 2019; Herforth et al. 2017a). The concept of sustainable diets has been variably defined including, “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (Burlingame and Derini 2012). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations define sustainable diets as, “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources” (Burlingame and Derini 2012). The Burlingame and Derini (2012) broad definition of sustainable diets includes multiple components of sustainability, including those related to the health, ecological (environmental), and socioeconomic consequences of diets.
Although the FAO definition of sustainable diets provides a thorough overview of the different components of a sustainable diet, it has been criticized for being unclear of what “such a diet might look like on the plate” (Garnett 2014). Most recently, the EAT–Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health outlines a universally healthy reference diet from a sustainable food system and provides the basis for estimating the human health and environmental effects of adopting the proposed alternative diet to standard current diets (Willet et al. 2019). The healthy reference diet proposed by the EAT–Lancet Commission promotes consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils along with modest intake of seafood, poultry, and dairy and no to low intake of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables (Willet et al. 2019). For example, shifting from animal-based to plant-based protein would lead to substantial reductions in land and water use as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
In the food system, sustainable diets are the results of a consumer’s dietary choices and the food environment. Food systems are the components and processes involved from production to consumption to waste including processing, distributing, preparing, marketing, and accessing food as well as all the people, communities, and policies involved (Herforth et al. 2017a). While food and nutrition programs historically focused on individual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors to improve diets (Huang and Glass 2008; Lawrence 2004; Adler and Stewart 2009; Sobal et al. 1998; Haack and Byker 2014), a food systems and food environment approach to diets evaluates the multiple socio-ecological factors that influence food choices (Herforth et al. 2017a). The food environment is defined as the consumer interface of the food system that influences the availability, affordability, convenience, and desirability of food (Herforth and Ahmed 2015). While food systems cover all aspects from production to consumption, a diet is something consumed by an individual and implies consumption choices by individuals within the context of a food environment (Herforth et al. 2017a).
Food systems need to be realigned to promote healthy diets within sustainable food systems or sustainable diets. Sustainable diets support human health and environmental outcomes while also encompassing the economic, cultural, and sociopolitical aspects of sustainability (Johnston et al. 2014). It has been acknowledged that considering the trade-offs for the dimensions of sustainability is key to realizing a sustainable diet (Willet et al. 2019). For example, locally produced foods may be the most sustainable part of a diet when they are in season but not at other times of the year (Garnett 2014).
Sustainability Challenges of Food Systems and Diets
Nutrition and Health Challenges
Undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and food insecurity continue to be challenges in all countries on the planet including low-, middle-, and high-income countries (FAO et al. 2017). There are an estimated 815 million people that experience hunger daily (FAO et al. 2017). Over two billion people that lack the vital micronutrients (including iron, zinc, and vitamin A) for supporting healthy lives (WHO 2006). Concurrently, the prevalence of overweight and obesity as well as associated diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease is increasing in every region of the world (FAO et al. 2017; GBD 2017). It is estimated that per capita caloric consumption in many countries is on average about 500 kcal per day (or 20%) greater than is needed nutritionally (Tilman and Clark 2014), contributing to the global obesity epidemic (Swinburn et al. 2009). In fact, NCDs have become the leading preventable cause of death globally (WHO 2017). NCDs are most rapidly growing in low- and middle-income countries (FAO et al. 2017; GBD 2017). By 2030, it is expected that the number of people that are overweight, obese, or have NCDs will rise to 3.28 billion (Kelly et al. 2008).
Of the top nine risk factors to global health, a total of six are related to diet (GBD 2017). Poor diets pose greater risk to mortality and morbidity compared to the combined risks of air pollution, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use (Haddad et al. 2016; GBD 2017). Lack of access to healthy diets during childhood has detrimental long-term consequences for cognitive development, health, physical growth, and earning potential (Caulfield et al. 2006). In addition, poor nutrition amplifies the health consequences of multiple diseases by compromising the immune system (Karacabey and Ozdemir 2012).
Dietary trends linked to malnutrition include (i) low consumption of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (fiber); (ii) low consumption of omega-3 fatty acids; (iii) a nutrition transition in low-, middle-, and upper-middle-income countries toward ultra-processed foods that are high in sugars, fats, and salts; (iv) increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages; (v) increased portion sizes and caloric intake; (vi) increased processed meat consumption; and (vii) infant malnutrition stemming from reduced breastfeeding (GBD 2017). The foods that are most protective to health are those that are the most under-consumed, while unhealthy components in the diets are increasing (Imamura et al. 2015). Fruit and vegetable consumption are below the levels recommended by the World Health Organization in every region of the world except for East Asia (Global Panel 2016a). The lack of fruit and vegetable consumption and low dietary diversity is especially problematic for children, with only 36% of children receiving the minimum recommended dietary diversity of four or more food groups, based on representative data from 60 countries (IFPRI 2016).
Our dietary choices have enormous impacts on the environment and its resources. Food production accounts for the highest environmental burden on water, soil, biodiversity, and greenhouse gases (GHG) than any other human activity (MA 2005; IPCC 2013, 2014; IAASTD 2009; Rockström et al. 2017; Foley et al. 2011; West et al. 2014). Ecological footprint analyses reveal that North America consumes biological resources as if it occupies five planets and Europe consumes biological resources as if it occupies three planets (Lang and Barling 2013).
All activities in the food system, from production through processing, distribution, storage, preparation, and waste, contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG; IPCC 2013, 2014). Specifically, an estimated 20–30% of anthropogenic GHG is linked to the food system (IPCC 2013; UNEP 2016). The greatest GHG emissions in the food system occur at the stage of agriculture. The major greenhouse gas emissions linked to agriculture include (i) methane emissions from livestock processes (ruminant digestion) and rice cultivation; (ii) nitrous oxide from fertilized soils including application of manure, urine, and nitrogen soils; and (iii) carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use such as for powering machinery (Garnett 2011). The dramatic rise of global GHG emissions since pre-industrial times are linked to climate change, including the rise of the planet’s average temperature since the late 1800s (IPCC 2013).
Energy, water, and land are essential resources across the food system (Eshel et al. 2014). The global food system utilizes 30% of the world’s energy consumption (FAO 2011). It is estimated that the production of 1 kcal of food requires 7–10 kcal of energy input (Woods et al. 2010). A large portion of the energy utilized in the food system comes from fossil fuels. In the United States, the average diet is estimated to use 2000 l of oil equivalents per year, which collectively accounts for 19% of total US energy use (Pimentel et al. 2009). Agriculture is estimated to use 92% of global water. In addition, agriculture is the largest land use on the planet, using 38% of the earth’s ice-free land (FAOSTAT 2016). While 4 billion metric tons of food are produced each year around the world, an estimated 30–50% are never consumed (IME 2013). At the same time, food production increasingly vulnerable to climate change, land-use change, and shifts in markets and policies in a cycle that exacerbates many of the sustainability challenges of the food system (Campbell et al. 2016; Auestad and Fulgoni 2015).
Despite vast environmental resources dedicated to food production, much of what is produced is wasted at enormous costs to ecological, economic, and public health systems (Ahmed et al. 2018a; Byker Shanks et al. 2017). It is estimated that 30–40% of food is wasted due to losses in storage and transport and lack of portion control (Gustavsson et al. 2011). Food waste has detrimental consequences for the climate, water, land use, and biodiversity (FAO 2013). In the United States, one quarter of total freshwater and 300 million barrels of oil are used to annually to produce and distribute wasted food (Hall et al. 2009). The increase in food waste is linked to a threefold increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the past century (Porter et al. 2016).
Food is intricately linked with social, cultural, and emotional meaning (Johnston et al. 2014). Multiple social factors are associated with identity and pleasure for eating food. Some social factors present challenges for achieving sustainable diets, including the nutrition transition, health disparities, and inequality in access. The nutrition transition, which includes a shift from traditional diets toward modern Westernized diets, is driven by multiple social factors of change including globalization, industrialization, technological changes, trade liberalization, mass media growth, and urbanization, along with depletion of natural resources and economic growth (Popkin 2001).
Health disparities and inequality in access are among the most pressing social challenges facing current diets (Alesina and Glaeser 2004). For example, in the United States, racial and ethnic minority groups including American Indian, African American, Hispanic, and Asian populations experience an unequal burden of disease incidence related to diets as compared to the overall population (Satia et al. 2005). Type 2 diabetes has been shown to be epidemic among American Indian populations (Egede and Dagogo-Jack 2005). In addition to racial and ethnic factors, health disparities exist based on differences in socioeconomic status, environmental exposures, gender, education, disability, geographic location, and sexual orientation (US Department of Health and Human Services 2000). Populations with diet-related health disparities display differences in dietary intake, behaviors, and patterns as compared to that of the general population including diets higher in saturated fats, sugar, and salt and lower in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (Satia et al. 2005).
Health disparities and inequality in access to healthy diets are directly linked to food environments (Byker Shanks et al. 2015, 2016; Herforth and Ahmed 2015; Ahmed and Byker Shanks 2017; Byker Shanks 2017). The food environment is the socio-ecological context in the food system that influences the availability, affordability, convenience, and desirability of food for consumers (Herforth and Ahmed 2015). For example, research in the rural state of Montana in the United States demonstrates that health disparities exist due to issues of distribution and access to healthy foods that varies on the basis of locality and demographics (Ahmed et al. 2018b; Ahmed and Byker Shanks 2017; Byker Shanks et al. 2015, 2016).
Numerous evidence demonstrates that dietary quality follows a socioeconomic gradient in low-, middle-, and high-income countries (Darmon and Drewnowski 2008; Lallukka et al. 2007). Food access and other factors of the food environment are directly linked to economic factors including the cost of food and income (Herforth and Ahmed 2015). Food prices are recognized as a key linkage between socioeconomic disparities and diet intake and quality (Mason and Lang 2017). A systematic review found that foods of lower nutritional value and lower-quality foods generally cost less per calorie compared to diets of higher nutritional value (Monsivais et al. 2012). However, some studies show that on either a weight or a serving basis, healthy foods can cost less than less healthy foods (Carlson and Frazão 2012). Multiple studies have shown that people with lower income spend a notably greater proportion of their income for supporting healthy diets (Barosh et al. 2014). The relatively high cost of healthy food for lower-income households contributes to vulnerability and health disparities among this population. Concurrently, increasing evidence demonstrates that the cost of healthy foods has risen more than unhealthy foods over the past 15 years (Mason and Lang 2017; Wiggins et al. 2015; Jones et al. 2016).
Linkages Among Sustainability Challenges
It is important to note that the aforementioned sustainability challenges are interrelated. For example, overconsumption of calories is directly related to use of land, water, fertilizer, and agrochemicals and impacts on ecosystem services and biodiversity. Overconsumption of calories also directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through production, processing, transport, and storage (Michaelowa and Dransfeld 2008; Edwards and Roberts 2009). Similarly, increasing meat is associated with conversion of natural vegetation, often forests, to cropland and pasture with notable consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem health. While food waste is an environmental challenge, it is also an economic and nutrition sustainability challenge. Food waste represents a loss of dietary loss of 1249 calories per capita per day (Buzby and Hyman 2012) or over 60% of the daily recommended caloric intake for an average adult. In addition, food waste represents the loss of multiple key nutrients for human consumption including 33 g of protein, 5.9 g of dietary fiber, 1.7 mg of vitamin D, 286 mg of calcium, and 880 mg of potassium per person, per day (Spiker et al. 2017).
Dimensions of Sustainable Diets
Previous studies have identified over 30 different components of sustainable diets (Jones et al. 2016). In this section, 15 key components of sustainable diets are outlined on the basis of their relevance for policy and practice. These 15 components are grouped with the three dimensions of sustainability including (i) nutrition and health, (ii) environmental, and (iii) socioeconomic. With these three dimensions, sustainable diets address how food is produced, who has food access, and what food is consumed. Each component is accompanied by associated evaluation metrics.
Nutrition and Health Dimension
Nutrition and health dimension of sustainable diets
Consumption of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds versus consumption of animal-source foods (including meat and dairy) as part of a diet with adequate consumption of calories and protein
Survey data of dietary intake; food balance sheet data; healthy eating index; dietary diversity scores
Consumption of a diverse range of foods in different food groups that support healthy diets
Survey data of dietary intake; dietary diversity scores
Consumption of high-quality foods including nutrient-dense foods and those rich in phytochemicals such as superfoods and seasonal foods as part of diet that has adequate consumption of calories and protein
Healthy eating index; plate waste measurement
Limitation of energy and ultra-processed foods
Diets that have reduced portion sizes and caloric intake including low consumption of ultra-processed foods that are high in sugars, fats, and salts; reduced consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages; and decreased consumption of processed meats
Survey data of dietary intake; healthy eating index
Diets comprised of safe foods including those without pathogens
Pathogen colony counts; toxicity tests
Mason and Lang (2017)
Environmental dimension of sustainable diets
Diets that support biodiversity in the food system including through consumption of diversified foods; foods sourced from diversified farms; and foods produced in ways that do not endanger the survival of other organisms
Shannon Weiner index
Diets that support ecosystem services during food production including pollination, fertility, and nutrient cycling such as those from farms with low pesticide use
Water quality; bee counts
Soil health and agricultural management practices
Consumption of foods that support soil organic matter and healthy agriculture including organic food, free-range, and diversified farming; management practices that prevent eutrophication
Soil organic matter; life cycle analysis
Efficient resource use including water, energy, and land
Diets based on foods that make efficient use of natural resources including water, energy, and land; this includes reduced use of synthetic fertilizers and reduced food waste
Life cycle analysis; ecological footprint; total per capita land requirements; water footprints of crops; land use; energy use; food waste measurements
Low greenhouse gas emissions
Diets that include the procurement and consumption of food low in greenhouse gas emissions; have low carbon footprints, or are carbon neutral; have low food miles; are local, seasonal, and purchased through direct trade such as farmers’ markets
Life cycle analysis; per capita GHGEs; agriculture- and distribution-related NH3, CH4, N2O emission factors
Socioeconomic dimension of sustainable diets
Diets that include foods that are part of cultural, religious, community, and family traditions
Flavor and cultural preferences
Diets that include foods that meet personal preferences based on flavor and culture including foods that are local and seasonal and those purchased through direct trade such as farmers’ markets
Surveys; choice experiments
Diets that support, and are supported by, equity in the food system based on gender, class, race, livelihoods, and distribution, among other factors
Surveys; household food expenditures
Mason and Lang (2017)
Food environment access
Diets that are supported by food environments that provide access to healthy food that is available, affordable, convenient, and desirable; this includes foods that have transparent and understandable labels
ProDes; NEMS; cost of diets; food environment observations
Diets that support and are supported by education, skills, empowerment, and safe advertising (that which does not encroach on children through unfair means)
Downs et al. (2017)
Integrating Sustainable Diets in the Sustainable Development Goals
As highlighted in this entry, the provision of sustainable diets is critically important to multiple SDGs. Healthy and sustainable diets are foundational for supporting successful progress toward targets in health, agriculture, inequality, poverty, and sustainable consumption (Global Panel 2017). Specifically, this includes SDG 2 which aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” and SDG 3 which aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” In addition, healthy diets provide a foundation to support progress for meeting multiple other SDGs in the areas of poverty reduction (SDG 1), inequality (SDGs 5 and 10), and improved work and productivity (SDG 8) while interacting with consumption and waste, the effects of climate change, and the use of natural resources (SDGs 12, 13, 14, and 15). Directly addressing sustainable diets within the SDGs requires an examination of multiple dimensions and metrics of sustainability including health of people and the environment (Willet et al. 2019, Herforth et al. 2017a; Fisher and Garnett 2016). Given the importance of the provision of sustainable diets for achieving multiple SDGs, we propose for sustainable diets to be explicitly integrated into future SDGs.
Recommendations for Advancing Sustainable Diets
Given the lack of explicit focus on diets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we support that international, national, and local policy should focus on diets in developing plans and programs linked to ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture (SDG 2); promote well-being for all (SDG 3); reducing poverty (SDG 1); addressing inequality (SDGs 5 and 10); improved work and productivity (SDG 8); and addressing consumption, waste, the effects of climate change, and the use of natural resources (SDGs 12, 13, 14, and 15).
Since sustainable diets consider the entire food system, policy should adopt a food systems approach that includes supporting collaboration among actors across sectors including agriculture, trade, education, research, industry, retail, and health (Global Panel 2016a). This collaborative effort should further include leaders with different perspectives that work at local, regional, national, and global scales from civil society, government, and industry (Global Panel 2016b).
Sustainable diets consider multiple scales and must be considered in local and global contexts. Diets exist at the level of the individual. Food environments are the consumer interface of the food system. Food systems inhabit the level of policy and production. It is important to design action steps that can be taken at all levels (Herforth et al. 2017a).
Policy and programs should particularly focus on addressing barriers in food access for the most vulnerable populations including minority groups, infants, young children, and women.
Sustainable diets can be operationalized and popularized through their integration in national policies such as dietary guidelines and associated programs. The overall goal of supporting sustainable diets in policy is to support both human and environmental well-being (Herforth et al. 2017a). Sustainable dietary recommendations endorse nutrition patterns that are achievable and culturally appropriate for low-, middle-, and high-income countries.
Develop and implement metrics for evaluating sustainable diets in order to improve information to policy-makers to make more informed decisions (Herforth et al. 2017a, b). This information should further be disseminated to consumers in ways that are approachable and action-oriented.
This work was funded by NSF RII Track-2 FEC OIA 1632810, NIH NIGMS 5P20GM104417-04, and NIH NIGMS 5P20GM103474-19. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
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