New research unveils our appetite for a sustainable diet

Recent research conducted by Coyne research on behalf of the National Dairy Council shows the factors considered by Irish consumers in Connacht when choosing a sustainable, healthy diet. As food prices continue to soar, it’s not surprising that affordability was top of mind, closely followed by nutrition with the highest number of Generation Z respondents at 67 per cent. Choosing locally produced foods ranked third in the top three factors.

The survey also revealed confusion over the term ‘plant-based diet’ with almost half surveyed believing it to refer to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and a further 15 per cent saying they did not know what it meant.

“Given it’s a term that is used frequently in relation to eating sustainably, this is an important finding,” said Dr Aifric O’Sullivan, assistant professor at UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science. "The confusion is understandable however, as the term ‘plant-based diet’ is not consistently defined. We would define it as diets based mostly on plants, including cereals and breads, pulses [peas, beans, and lentils], nuts and seeds, but that also include moderate amounts of animal-based products like meat, eggs, fish and dairy. In fact, the Irish food pyramid, which recommends varying proportions of both plant and animal foods, is a good example of a plant-based diet if we were to actually follow it. We know that Irish diets are not sustainable from both an environmental and health perspective so any confusion is a barrier and we need to be clearer about what we need people to do to eat more sustainably.”

According to dietitian Sarah Keogh: “If people interpret advice to adopt a more plant-based diet as meaning a vegan diet, this could well be a barrier to people making more realistic changes to their current diets. Interestingly only four per cent in the survey said they had moved to a vegan diet. I find that many people last about three months on a vegan diet before going back to their previous diet. Making smaller, sustainable changes may have a greater effect in the long run. While only four per cent said that they had adopted a vegan diet, four times as many said they had cooked more vegetarian dinners during the week, showing that plant based dishes that also include dairy and eggs are likely to be more acceptable“.

Dr Aifric O’Sullivan, is also a principal investigator of the myplantdiet research project, which aims to explore how to move people to more sustainable healthy diets. She said: "We are looking at whether giving personalised advice would be more successful. Trying to change a diet too drastically is unlikely to work. Some people don’t eat a lot of meat, for example, so general advice to reduce may not be helpful or may lead to nutritional deficiencies. Others may need more guidance about how to increase plant foods in their diets while maintaining balance. We also forget that high fat and sugar treats, wine, or even coffee have a carbon footprint too but are not actually essential or even highly nutritious, so its good to see that a third of people in the NDC survey said they were trying to consume less.”

This is an opinion echoed by dietitian Sarah Keogh. “Each food group provides a unique set of nutrients and balance and portion control are key elements of healthy, sustainable diets," she said. "This research throws up some inaccurate perceptions around how much dairy we actually consume in Ireland. Around half the sample said we eat about the right amount of dairy, while over a third thought we consume too much. The reality is that on average the majority of adults only consume two of their three recommended portions of dairy as milk, cheese, or yogurt. As dairy products are nutrient rich foods and are large contributors to nutrients like calcium, riboflavin, vitamin A and B12 in the Irish diet, we need to be careful about overly simplistic messages to reduce animal foods.”

The good news is that 84 per cent of those surveyed had registered one or more changes they had made towards eating a more sustainable diet. Around half said they were trying to only consume what they needed and were trying to reduce food waste through better planning.

“This is really encouraging, as it shows the appetite is there for change and that people are doing what they can within their own means," Sarah Keogh added. "As food prices continue to soar, it is not surprising that choosing foods that are affordable and nutritious are top of mind and are important considerations as we develop guidance on eating more sustainably too. We need to make eating sustainably achievable for as many people as possible.”


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