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Theme 2: Diets

Our overarching theme forges connections between health, wellbeing and sustainability and this term we are focusing on diets and lifestyles.

At the first meeting in January, we started by looking at how our diets may change in the future and ways in which these changes could impact the environment. In February, we turned to what drives the choices people make and in March, we discussed 'catalysing change' and the role that policy and advocacy could play in changing what people eat and how active they are.

As always, a panel of three witnesses will join us each month and to provide their perspective on gaps and future research questions, followed by an open question and answer session. 

A bird's eye view of our discussions

The overall theme for this term was health, wellbeing and sustainability with regard to diets. Whilst the three meetings are summarised individually in more detail over the following pages, this section highlights some of the key themes that came up over the course of the entire term.

There was general agreement across the three forums that when it comes to what constitutes a ‘good’ diet and its importance with regard to health, wellbeing and sustainability there is a large, albeit evolving, evidence base. There remain some outstanding areas to explore, such as determining exactly what nutritional factors are best for human health. Diet is a multidisciplinary and multicriteria problem, which Professor Tim Lang related to food quality, health, environment, social and cultural issues relating to diet, economics and governance. Professor Charles Godfrey emphasised that health and the environment overlap and can have co-benefits, but exactly how these interrelate and how negative rebound effects can be avoided was a frequent discussion point.

There was also agreement that, overall, rapid change of the food system is needed for health and environmental reasons, although it was noted that in some instances maintaining the status quo in areas of good practice will be just as challenging. Dr Marco Springmann asserted that animal-based diets are unhealthy and unsustainable, and that food production will exceed emissions targets if land change is also considered.

Dr Michael Obersteiner and others considered whether policy interventions should occur at the point of consumption or point of production. At the moment interventions are often at the supply end and changing our demands could have a greater impact. There was disagreement across the Forums as to which of these intervention points were most important; however, it was agreed that both were vital and could serve different purposes.

Policymakers often know the changes that can make people’s diets healthier, but how to catalyse those changes is much less clear. There are very few existing models for large-scale interventions at the population or even community-level. Examples from other European countries and the US has shown that food and drink-related taxes are politically sensitive; subsidies can have unintended adverse consequences for the environment; certifications can lack a solid evidence base; and clear, effective food labels are hard to achieve. Modelling studies can examine the theoretical effect of policy changes and these also need to be ‘ground-truthed’ with information about how people behave in real life. Even when the correct policy approach is known, public opinion needs to be galvanised so that policymakers can be emboldened to enact interventions that can affect behavioural change. Professor Theresa Marteau explained that communicating evidence concerning the intervention can make it more acceptable to the public and suggested that the public sector could encourage behavioural change in advance of cultural shifts.

Whether policy interventions should occur at a population or individual level was also discussed. Dr Brent Loken suggested that the urgency of the issue meant that population-level changes were more effective and vital, but could be supported by interventions at other levels. Each population, and its demographic subsets, will require a different approach.

It is hard for the public to access and absorb the complex information regarding diet, and as a result they become sceptical and revert to default practices. Although digitisation offers opportunity to convey information more effectively, health and environmental messages alone will not change our food culture: a holistic, systems approach is required. Bee Wilson suggested that a change in approach is required. For example, people’s malleable flavour preferences could be changed so that they actively enjoy healthy food over sugary treats. She and others recognised the importance of education as all levels, but especially at a young age, in changing our relationship to the environment and food production.

Looking at industry, there is scope to optimise agricultural practice, and this could cause beneficial indirect land-use change. Professor Martin White suggested that regulation was probably necessary in this area as voluntary commercial change had not been forthcoming, but this can have negative consequences if the cost is passed on to other areas. As things stand, the food and drinks industry has too much power, and the mechanisms by which public pressure on industry can be created needs investigation. Crucially we need to know more about how the food industry influences dietary choices.

There are many layers between researchers and the individual consumer, and research is needed into how messages can be communicated clearly so as to influence behaviour. Professor Sumantra Ray advocated the need for effective and trusted knowledge brokers, such as healthcare professions, that would help people to understand the evidence behind diets, and the research community needs to take an active role in this process.

With the rapid pace of urbanisation, these problems need to be addressed before they become unmanageable. A final thought considered whether policy change directly focused on the global food system was enough to catalyse significant change by itself or whether the status quo of other large-scale economic forces can lead to inertia in food policy.

For more information about these meetings, please follow the links on the right or e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond (r).