Sustainable healthy diets: Guiding principles

Resource type:
Advocacy and policy

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guiding principles for Sustainable Healthy Diets. In addition to setting out what a sustainable healthy diet is, the report provides actions for implementing the principles. There are also five background papers that provide an overview of the connection between sustainable healthy diets and: healthy diets; environmental sustainability; the role of culture, economics and food environments; territorial diets; and food safety.The information and recommendations set out in this report require action, coordination and cooperation across government, business and civil society. 


The guiding principles for sustainable healthy diets are defined within three categories:

Regarding health, sustainable healthy diets

  • …start early in life with early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding until six months of age, and continued breastfeeding until two years and beyond, combined with appropriate complementary feeding.
  • … are based on a great variety of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, balanced across food groups, while restricting highly processed food and drink products.
  • … include wholegrains, legumes, nuts and an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • … can include moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry and fish; and small amounts of red meat.
  • … include safe and clean drinking water as the fluid of choice.
  • … are adequate (i.e. reaching but not exceeding needs) in energy and nutrients for growth and development, and to meet the needs for an active and healthy life across the lifecycle.
  • … are consistent with WHO guidelines to reduce the risk of diet related NCDs, and ensure health and wellbeing for the general population.
  • … contain minimal levels, or none if possible, of pathogens, toxins and other agents that can cause foodborne disease.

Regarding environmental impact, sustainable healthy diets

  • … maintain greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use, nitrogen and phosphorus application and chemical pollution within set targets.
  • … preserve biodiversity, including that of crops, livestock, forest-derived foods and aquatic genetic resources, and avoid overfishing and overhunting.
  • …minimize the use of antibiotics and hormones in food production.
  • … minimize the use of plastics and derivatives 11 in food packaging.
  • …reduce food loss and waste

Regarding sociocultural aspects, sustainable healthy diets

  • … are built on and respect local culture, culinary practices, knowledge and consumption patterns, and values on the way food is sourced, produced and consumed.
  • … are accessible and desirable.
  • … avoid adverse gender-related impacts, especially with regard to time allocation (e.g. for buying and preparing food, water and fuel acquisition).


The report makes the following recommendations to implement sustainable diets:
  1.  Create an enabling environment through government mechanisms, incentives and disincentives; legal frameworks; and regulatory instruments to promote the production, processing, distribution, labelling and marketing, and consumption of a variety of foods that contribute to Sustainable Healthy Diets.
  2.  Ensure policy coherence by aligning policies across all sectors (agriculture, health, education, environment, water, trade, etc.) from local to national to international level and discussing with all actors of society
  3.  Establish a representative baseline of current diets, when needed conducting individual dietary assessment by age, gender, income, ethnic group, and geography. Use these data to identify which shifts in diet could potentially have the greatest positive impact on both health and environment.
  4.  Identify, in any given context, which foods are available and accessible in terms of quantity and quality and where and why mismatches in food supply and demand exist.
  5.  Analyze existing food systems to identify potential changes needed to encourage the production, processing, packaging, storage, distribution, marketing and retailing, and consumption of a diversity of foods needed for Sustainable Healthy Diets.
  6.  Quantify and balance the potential trade-offs to make Sustainable Healthy Diets available, accessible, affordable, safe and appealing for all.
  7.  Ensure that affordable and desirable foods for a Sustainable Healthy Diet are available and accessible for the most vulnerable. Address inequities and inequalities, and consider the perspective of people who experience poverty and deprivation.
  8.  Develop national food-based dietary guidelines that define context-specific Sustainable Healthy Diets by taking into account the social, cultural, economic, ecological and environmental circumstances.
  9.  Promote capacity development strategies for behaviour change, including consumer empowerment, and effective food and nutrition education.
This resource presents evidence or data but has not been peer reviewed