Nutrition Unlocked

11. Nutrition and Sustainability: Is it as simple as ‘eat more plants'?

July 11, 2023 Nestlé Health Science
11. Nutrition and Sustainability: Is it as simple as ‘eat more plants'?
Nutrition Unlocked
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Nutrition Unlocked
11. Nutrition and Sustainability: Is it as simple as ‘eat more plants'?
Jul 11, 2023
Nestlé Health Science

This episode of Nutrition Unlocked explores the link between nutrition and sustainability.  Our host Christiane Baker chats to Dr Joanna McMillan, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, PhD qualified Nutrition Scientist, Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Graduate of The Australian Institute of Company Directors. Jo and Christiane discuss how we can incorporate sustainable nutrition into our everyday food choices.  

This podcast is sponsored by Nestlé Health Science. This podcast represents opinions of host Christiane Baker and Dr Joanna McMillan and does not reflect the opinion of Nestlé Health Science. The content is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional for any medical questions.  

Show Notes Transcript

This episode of Nutrition Unlocked explores the link between nutrition and sustainability.  Our host Christiane Baker chats to Dr Joanna McMillan, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, PhD qualified Nutrition Scientist, Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and Graduate of The Australian Institute of Company Directors. Jo and Christiane discuss how we can incorporate sustainable nutrition into our everyday food choices.  

This podcast is sponsored by Nestlé Health Science. This podcast represents opinions of host Christiane Baker and Dr Joanna McMillan and does not reflect the opinion of Nestlé Health Science. The content is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional for any medical questions.  

Nutrition Unlocked // EP11 

// INTRO //

[00:00:00] Jackie: Nutrition fuels our bodies and minds. Our strength, mobility, energy, and even mood rely on the right nutrition and scientists are continually uncovering new secrets. 

Welcome to Nutrition Unlocked, the podcast celebrating innovations, advancing the role of nutrition and health, sponsored by Nestlé Health Science.

In each episode, we talk to experts from around the world about the latest topics in health science. We'll bring you insights and discuss innovations that are unlocking healthier futures. 

In today's episode, we'll be discussing the link between nutrition and sustainability. Our host for this episode is Christiane Baker, Sustainability Lead for Nestlé Health Science, U.S. 

[00:00:43] Christiane: So welcome back to Nutrition Unlocked. I'm Christiane Baker and I'm excited for today's conversation about the important link between sustainability and nutrition. 

My guest is Dr. Joanna McMillan, an accredited practicing dietitian, PhD qualified nutrition scientist, fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine and graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors with a career spanning three decades. It's so great to have you with us today, Jo!

[00:01:12] Joanna: Thank you for having me on. I'm delighted to be here.

// Main Chat //


[00:01:15] Christiane: Well, I can't wait to unpack what sustainable nutrition means and explore ways we can incorporate it into our daily routines. So to kick us off, how should we define sustainable nutrition and why has it become such a hot topic in the last few years?

[00:01:32] Joanna: Well, really, the first thing to be said is that all of us have to think about sustainability in all aspects of life. And we know that food is a big part of that. The reality is that, we've made extraordinary gains in terms of the way that we produce food and the way that we've been able to feed the world until now, but it's not sustainable. We're estimated to hit 10 billion people by 2050. That's the sort of, more or less agreed upon prediction. So, we've got a lot of extra mouths to feed. At the same time, we're creating a world that is going to be able to produce less food if we continue on the path that we are currently on. So the reality is that we have to change the way that we produce food if we're able to feed us all in the future. 

And what I think is really important, because I'm a nutrition scientist, so sustainability is something that I've become interested in in the last couple of years, when I first trained almost 30 years ago in my original bachelor of science, we learned nothing about this area. So this is something that's very, very new, but it's something that is absolutely essential. 

But what we mustn't do is forget about nutrition, while we also consider sustainability. And unfortunately, that's what I see continually happening, that when we talk sustainability, suddenly nutrition is forgotten. And we've got to remember that the  UN sustainability goals, the SDGs, they're all inclusive of providing a healthy diet for all. And so that's why it's really important that people in my position who are involved with nutrition science talk about this space and start to understand it more so that we can make individual decisions about what we can do to make a difference, but also advise corporations and governments and bigger corporations to be able to make the best decisions possible for how we move forward.

[00:03:14] Christiane: I love that. So nutrition and sustainability are really synergistic, right? 

Another term I've heard used around this topic is conscious consumption. It refers to how we balance our individual needs with those of the communities and the planet and all while navigating the challenges of a growing global population, as you mentioned. It's definitely an exciting area to be working in, I'm sure?

[00:03:36] Joanna: Oh yeah, for sure. And there's a lot to learn and I think that's really important to actually say upfront is that, you know, I've just finished a food sustainability course with the University of Cambridge in the UK. But what was really uplifting about that course was understanding how much innovation, collaborations and all sorts of different projects going on around the world that are really important in this area and are uplifting, but we have to be able to move faster and quicker and make those decisions sooner. And that's what's really important for us to move forward. 

But it is exciting and I think what we have to understand though is there are still things we have to learn. We don't know everything about this area yet. And so we've gotta move with the science, we've gotta move with the understanding of what we have to do and move with the way that technology and innovation grows too.

[00:04:22] Christiane: Totally agree and listening to you speak, Jo, I get the sense that while you acknowledge the challenges ahead, and they are certainly great, you are all about identifying solutions. 

Doesn't part of the solution lie in the soil? The health of the soil affects everything, right? Healthy soils affect plant productivity, biodiversity and nutrition and regenerative agriculture is very much connected to soil health, and it's been getting a lot of attention lately. 

Can you explain to our listeners what it is and tell us what the research in this area is revealing?

[00:04:55] Joanna: Part of my frustration with the way that food sustainability is discussed is this sort of general media line has been, oh, we just have to eat more plant food and eat less animal food, and oh well, everything's solved.

And what we have to understand is, exactly as you just said, that doesn't solve our problems of soil, erosion of water use, or runoff of chemicals from synthetic fertilizers or from herbicides or pesticides or so on into waterways. It doesn't solve our problems of deforestation and the way that land is used. It doesn't solve the problem of huge areas of monocropping across huge areas of our agricultural land simply to produce singular crops like soybean or wheat or rice and so on. 

So, you know, we've got to understand that it's so over simplistic to suggest that all we need to do is eat more plant food. So I'm not negating the idea that we do, of course have to, but there's a ceiling to how much animal food we can produce. But what's lovely about regenerative agriculture and I grew up in the country, in Scotland, it's almost to me like going back to more ancient methods, to some of my uncles and cousins and so on and our next door neighbor, you know, they all ran smaller farms that had a really lovely integration of animals and different crops into the farm. And what regenerative agriculture is really a sort of modern version of that, understanding a bit more about the technology behind it. 

Agriculture really has become a science. It's a lot more technological than it used to be. It's a lot more efficient than it used to be. So we can apply that modern knowledge, modern science and modern technology and innovation to some of those more ancient ideas. And it's really about that sort of idea of using animals in the system so that manure is rotated around. That becomes fertilizer for the soil. We use different crops and they're rotated around the soil. We have cattle and goats and sheep and so on, on natural pasture. We have, using things like legumes that are nitrogen fixers back into the soil rather than having just entire huge, corporation-run farms that simply grow soybeans or they simply grow wheat or they grow, you know, sugar cane or whatever it might be.

One of the things that really stuck out for me in the course, and I've been in the area of nutrition science for almost 30 years, was a slide that one of our lectures put up in this recent course that showed us that 75% of the world's calories, or kilojules as we should be now talking, came from only 12 crops and five animals and that's pretty frightening. 

So understanding that we've got that loss of biodiversity helps us to understand, well, that means we're losing natural ecosystems. If I talk to anyone about, why the rainforest is healthy, they understand it's because there's lots of different insects and animals and plants and trees and birds and so on that makes that a healthy ecosystem. 

The same is true in your own body. When you look at your gut microbiome, we know the healthiest gut microbiomes have the biggest diversity and an even-ness of different species across there, and the same is true of our diets.

So as soon as we start getting into this sort of area of, we have so few foods, and so few, even looking at one of those crops like wheat, suddenly instead of having hundreds of different varieties of wheat, you know we have two or three that are globally dominant, because of the domination of global seed companies.

So I think, this is what's really important to understand for sustainability, is that word diversity. And that we have to bring diversity back to our farms, and that filters on them to our diets, to our gut microbiomes, to our overall health and wellbeing of both the planet and of human health.

[00:08:57] Christiane: And when you talk about biodiversity, it also sounds like it's about balance too, right? It's how do we achieve this balance with nature and in our own biological system? And so I have to say, you mentioned, I think you grew up near a dairy farm. Am I correct?

[00:09:13] Joanna: My extended family were all farmers and we grew up in the country right next door to a dairy farm. So yes, I grew up drinking raw milk. We'd be sent around to the farm with a bucket in the morning that was the job of us kids and filled the bucket up with the milk that had literally been milked that morning.

And the sad thing is that not just in Scotland, but in most developed countries, including here in Australia, a lot of those very little family run farms have been lost and taken over by big sort of corporations. The big multi food companies and so on are part of the solution and I know that there's some really positive stories for some of those. So I don't mean to throw stones, but it is in a way really sad that we've lost some of that sort of small farm holding kind of way of producing our food.

[00:09:56] Christiane: I had my first experience being on a dairy farm here in the US just last week, and the farmer uses a variety of regenerative agriculture practices, and my biggest takeaway was the circular systems that regenerative farming creates. 

So on this farm crops are grown without synthetic fertilizers. The cows eat these crops. Turn it into protein for human consumption. The cow's waste is naturally turned into compost with the help of some very industrious worms, which is very neat to see. Then put back on the land as a natural fertilizer to grow more crops that sequester carbon and the cycle continues.

So really, I'd love to get your sense of what does regenerative ag mean for us, in the everyday sense, particularly around our eating habits, as people seem to be adopting a more flexitarian diet, eating more locally produced products, and really looking for ways to reduce food waste.

[00:10:51] Joanna: I'm glad you brought up food waste because actually, here in Australia we had the CSIRO, who's one of our research bodies here, a sort of research and industry aligned body. They've done local research here in Australia, and what that showed was that as an individual, so there's lots of things along the food chain from farm to fork that needs to be changed and adapted, and there's some big changes that are required. the biggest thing that came out in terms of reducing our environmental footprint is actually reducing our food waste. It wasn't about eat more plants and eat less animals, that didn't even enter into it. 

The second thing was about eating more whole foods in the amounts of food that we require. In other words, eating closer to the country's sort of dietary guidelines. So if we eat closer, not only to the dietary guidelines from whatever country, dietary guidelines are reasonably similar all around the world and we reduce our food waste, we're eating the amount that are required. That's not just good for our planet, it's also good for our own health. 

But coming back to your regenerative agricultural question, I think the other important point there that you really nicely, touched on, was the fact that animals like a cow are pretty extraordinary, because they turn food that we can't eat like grass into food that is incredibly nutrient dense and beneficial for us.

So when we look at regenerative agriculture, not only are they producing more nutrient dense foods for us, but they are in part, as you say, part of that process and part of that circular system. The methane and there's lots of really interesting work about how to reduce the methane emissions.

So we've got seaweed supplements, for example, being given or probiotic supplements being given to cattle that's reducing their methane emissions by 90% plus. That's pretty extraordinary. But even that methane that is thrown up into the atmosphere, if they're on grass and they're in that regenerative agriculture model, that carbon is actually going up into the atmosphere, but it's coming back down into the grassland, into the farm, into the other plants and so on that are part of that system. And we get this kind of circular, over a 10 to 12 year period, circular carbon cycle. 

The other thing that we really have to bear in mind is when we think that we're making a more sustainable food choice, but drive down to the shop, that's actually only five minutes away to buy your more supposedly sustainable food. You know, are we really making the best choices for the planet? 

So I think we've also got to be very careful to make sure that we're not putting the cart ahead of the horse and not understanding the bigger picture of what we need to do for climate change and for environmental issues, rather than just focusing on individual food choices, because we need to look at that bigger picture.

[00:13:30] Christiane: And speaking of the bigger picture, when we think about nutrition and sustainability, so much of nutrition these days seems to be about nutrition science. And then sustainability, as you said, when we look at regenerative systems in particular, it's about getting back to nature, right?

And so, how do we sit with these, are they contradictory? Nutrition, science, sustainability? 

[00:13:56] Joanna: I don't think they are contradictory at all, but I think it's important that we see them in alignment. when you look at the UN's SDGs, which are their sustainability development goals, it includes a healthy diet for all. So it's including good nutrition, but it also includes an equitable system of food distribution, supporting community.

So, we have to support our farming communities. 70% of us live in urban environments now, and while I think it's fantastic, you know, I've got some sprouts growing on my windowsill and I have a few herbs growing, but I don't have a garden to have a veggie patch or have some chicks and have some eggs or I don't have that sort of environment. And very few of us do, because more of us are living in those sort of urban environments. 

And that's what's important to point out, I think when you talk sustainability, people automatically go to greenhouse gas emissions. Now that's clearly important. And food accounts for about quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. So that's something that we can change and have an impact on the overall levels. But it's really important that we extend our thinking beyond that to be about, you know, you started off by talking about soil health. 

We've got to look after farming communities and we've got to try and distribute food equally amongst people. We mustn't forget that we've still got people going hungry in the world and look after those people. We have to make sure that we've got a healthy diet and we get nutrition. There's no point in just supplying food that gives us our calories or kilojoules, without also making sure it's nutrient dense and fulfilling our nutrient needs. 

[00:15:22] Christiane: What changes have you seen taking place over the past several years from both food producers and consumers who are taking a more conscious approach to consumption?

[00:15:33] Joanna: I mean, we've seen huge shifts, certainly, in terms of now when I walk into my local supermarket, there's a whole section dedicated to plant-based products. And so, we are certainly seeing shifts in the way that, that people are eating or at least in the terms of the foods that they're looking for. You mentioned the term flexitarian, when I first studied as a dietitian almost 30 years ago, that term was, I'd never even heard of it. Nobody even talked about flexitarian. We certainly talked about vegans and we talked about vegetarianism, but there wasn't this sort of idea of there's somewhere in between. So yeah, there are definitely shifts and trends and I think what's really important for us moving forward is that we make sure that those trends and shifts in the way that we're eating are aligned with both true sustainability and good nutrition. 

So I think we've just gotta be really careful the way we move forward to make sure that we are always being evidence informed and understanding that while, we do have to shift the way that we produce food and we all probably have to shift the way that we eat food and choose food, but we must make sure we're making the right choices. 

[00:16:39] Christiane: We as consumers, what are some of the hurdles to eating more sustainably and how can we overcome them?

[00:16:48] Joanna: I think the biggest hurdle is the food waste one. And I say this, not trying to pretend I've got it all right, either. I get so frustrated with myself when I discover a packet of chicken in the bottom of my fridge that's suddenly gone past the sell by date. You know, So many of us are working parents, and even if you're not a parent, people are working and busy and long hours and so on, and we're all trying to pack so much into our lives. It's really hard to be on top of stock taking your kitchen and planning and preparing and cooking meals. And so when I have to hoof food from my fridge into the bin, it just soul destroys me and I give myself a row for thinking, oh, you really didn't get that right. What a waste. 

I was sent just a few weeks ago, a food recycler, because I don't have space for a composter in my small backyard. And I've been playing around with this food recycler and that's been just an innovation that has, warmed my heart, because at least now all my vegetable scraps and a piece of fruit that's going rotten in the fruit bowl I can throw into the food recycler. It doesn't make compost. It's not the same if you're composting. That's a better thing to do, I think. But this effectively makes fertilizer so it grinds it all up overnight. I can run it overnight. It dehydrates, it grinds it all up and then I get this kind of granular fertilizer, that I can mix into my pot plants or mix into my, I have to re-pot my herbs regularly, either because I've eaten them or the insects have, and so I have to re-pot my herbs. And so I've just dug it all into my pot plants. And so that sort of innovation excites me, because I'm like these are the sorts of innovations we need to help us. 

So yeah, I think food waste is one, trying to dedicate a little bit more time to planning and understanding what we need to buy. I fear that we're losing some of the skills and knowledge of our parents and grandparents. My grandmother lived through the war and my father during the war and had to live on rations and they were the experts at minimizing food waste and really utilizing every single aspect of the foods that they bought and correspondingly, they in fact had one of the healthiest diets, um, compared to, to now. And this is UK data from during the Second World War, but they knew how to cook up a roast chicken on a Sunday, use the bones to make stock, and then that was soup for the next day, use the scraps that went into another dish, along with probably potatoes and other veggies, given that it was Scotland to then feed the family for the next few days.

A lot of my time ends up, when I'm doing things on television or cooking for shows, it's actually about teaching people what to do with food, how to use leftovers, how to make a meal last, and recreate it and regenerate it into two or three meals. So now we've gotta balance up sustainability, nutrition, along with that convenience and an ability to put meals on the table really, really quickly. But I believe it can be done.

[00:19:33] Christiane: And so what are some tips for doing that? Because that is what can seem like a daunting task, right? As we move, realizing the importance of a whole foods diet, a well-balanced diet with a lot of diversity, how do we make this fast and convenient at the same time in this life that we're all living?

[00:19:51] Joanna: So I think the first thing is to just step back a little bit and remember that food is an enormous pleasure in our life, and for most of us, we're in the fortunate position of being able to choose what kind of diet we want to follow. A lot of people in the world don't yet have that kind of choice. They simply have to eat the foods that are available to us. So let's recognize that it's a priority. 

But let's recognize that food is what makes us human too, you know, amongst other species. We are a unique species in that, you know, food is the center most of our pleasure, of our social connections. I'm a great traveler. I've traveled to some very remote areas of the world where people still wanna share their food with you and they want to prepare food and it's a sign of friendship and human connection that we share food and let's not lose that.

There are many different ways to eat healthily, there's not one diet fits all. There are just some key foundations and ultimately those key foundations are what will help to drive us towards sustainability choices as well. And that is simply to eat more whole foods. I think it's a lovely idea to go for diversity. So often I'll say to people, try to aim for that sort of 30 different plant foods a week, but add on to that, how many different sort of other animal foods can you get in there, provided you're an omnivore. If you choose to be vegan or vegetarian, of course, choose within those choices and get some help from a dietitian or a qualified nutrition expert to help guide you as to how to achieve that balanced diet. 

But if you plan your meals, you shop accordingly, for those of us that live in urban areas, we don't need to do a massive shop that's going to last all week. We can do smaller shops and make sure that we're only buying what we need so that we don't have food going off in our fridges at home. I think that's really helpful. It also allows then for if you suddenly have a meal out or you're eating at a friend's house or whatever happens, you didn't manage to cook, the chicken that was in the bottom of the fridge and it's not going off though, you know, just planning and stock taking your kitchen and just being a little bit more organized in that sense is the first thing. 

And then look for innovations for what to do with your food scraps, like the food recycler that I was talking about or composting in your backyard. Sharing food, you know, use your freezer. Your freezer is an amazing way of preserving food without using chemicals. Cooking what you need, buying what you need and then finding ways to use the scraps in terms of composting or recycling.

[00:22:08] Christiane: This is all such fantastic advice. I love that your freezer is your friend.

You spoke about this a little bit, but I just wanna touch on it one more time. Does a sustainable diet mean plants only?

[00:22:19] Joanna: Definitely not, not in my view. I'm not gonna argue the ethics,

So let's put the ethics of it aside. If I have my pure nutrition hat on, there's no doubt that following an omnivorous diet is an easier way to meet your nutrients. I get very concerned about women in particular, especially young women, then following entirely plant-based diets, it's very difficult to meet your iron requirements.

So if I'm purely talking nutrition science, I think there's no doubt that following an omnivorous diet is the way that humans are built and it's our easiest way to meet our nutrient requirements. 

And in terms of sustainability, you've talked quite a bit about regenerative agriculture. I really believe that animals can be part of this system and importantly, should be part of this system. It's a way of us making a food system that incorporates both sustainability and nutrition. So I think that's really important for us to understand following an entirely plant-based diet.

You can do that and you're gonna need a couple of supplements at least to help you make sure you reach your nutrition, but recognise that's not going to solve our problems with sustainability.

[00:23:22] Christiane: Such fantastic advice.

To switch it up slightly, sustainability and nutrition are both rapidly growing areas, so in which new discoveries are constantly being made. What innovations do you expect will change how we think about sustainability and nutrition in the future?

[00:23:40] Joanna: I think the way that we farm food is definitely changing. We're seeing some fantastic innovation with, the one that's coming into my mind is vertical farming. I saw recently a presentation from a company in the UK that's farming basil and they're providing about a third of the basil in UK supermarkets entirely from vertical farming.

So this is farming within a building. It was described to me as 10 football fields. This was from the UK, so this is soccer and 10 football fields on top of each other in a building that's got solar panels on the top. So it's renewable energy and the crops can be irrigated just the right amount of water and fertilizer and the right wavelength of light in order to produce the crop. And it's an enclosed environment. 

Now that sort of farming is pretty innovative, because it can be anywhere. It doesn't need to be in fertile farming land. It could be in an urban environment, it could be a desert environment. It could be in any sort of inhospitable environment really, that you're then growing crops. 

So there's all these sorts of incredible technologies and I think that's what's going to help us to solve the future. 

So I think it's important we stay optimistic, but in our optimism, don't become lackadaisical. We do have to move faster. We do have to shift with the times. We do have to learn and stay on top of the new research, the new science, the new innovation and make sure that we're supporting the companies and the individuals and the large corporations who are doing work in this space. I truly believe that we do have an optimistic future.

[00:25:03] Christiane: I can feel your optimism about the future of nutrition and sustainability and that our listeners can too. 

Jo, thank you for sharing your expertise and giving us a better understanding of this very big and ever-evolving topic. It's really been a pleasure. 

[00:25:18] Joanna: It's been a pleasure talking to you Christiane. Thank you so much for having me on.

// Outro //

[00:25:22] Christiane: We've been speaking with dietitian and nutrition scientist, Dr. Joanna McMillan. I'm Christiane Baker. Thank you for listening to Nutrition Unlocked.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to Nutrition Unlocked so you don't miss an episode, and we'd love to hear from you. We look forward to sharing more insights on the science of nutrition with you soon. See you next time on Nutrition Unlocked. 

// End //