Transforming food systems for sustainable healthy diets: A global imperative –

Transforming food systems for sustainable healthy diets: A global imperative

The impacts of our diets extend well beyond mealtime to affect our health and well-being. Unhealthy diets underpin many public health challenges, including all forms of malnutrition and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Many countries are facing a double burden of malnutrition—meaning that undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies coexist with overweight and obesity, or diet-related NCDs.

Unhealthy diets are the leading risk factor for NCDs, which are responsible for more than 73% of deaths globally. Evidence suggests that one in five lives could be saved by improving diets. Yet, despite advancements, unhealthy diets and all forms of malnutrition still affect too many people worldwide.

So, what are healthy diets, and why 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. They include limited sugar, salt, and fat while providing essential nutrients and health-protective elements.

But for many people around the world, healthy diets are often not desirable, affordable, accessible, or available for a variety of reasons. These 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 exposed to, and consuming, more and more unhealthy ultra-processed foods as a result of changing lifestyles, as well as the increased availability and marketing of these often inexpensive foods.

In contrast, many nutritious foods are out of reach for too many people, especially marginalized populations. Improving diets, therefore, is a global imperative that will require addressing multiple issues across the food system to achieve meaningful and sustainable

changes in diets and, in turn, nutrition and health outcomes such as reducing micronutrient deficiencies and preventing an increase in overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases.

In our interconnected world, food systems and diets affect not only our nutrition and health but also our environment. Food system activities contribute an estimated one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and often negatively affect land quality, water use, and biodiversity. In turn, these impacts have repercussions for food systems, with climate change and natural resource degradation harming our food supply and the nutritional content of crops.

The urgency to transform our food systems for health and sustainability resonates more strongly than ever. The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition underscores the need for a comprehensive approach, one 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 IFPRI’s newly released 2024 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) 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, food production, food-related policies, and broader societal and environmental factors.

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