Achieving Healthy and Sustainable Diets: A Review of the Results of Recent Mathematical Optimization Studies

Adv Nutr. 2019 Nov 1;10(Suppl_4):S389-S403. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmz037.


Climate protection and other environmental concerns render it critical that diets and agriculture systems become more sustainable. Mathematical optimization techniques can assist in identifying dietary patterns that both improve nutrition and reduce environmental impacts. Here we review 12 recent studies in which such optimization was used to achieve nutrition and environmental sustainability aims. These studies used data from China, India, and Tunisia, and from 7 high-income countries (France, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Most studies aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (10 of 12) and half aimed also to reduce ≥1 other environmental impact, e.g., water use, fossil energy use, land use, marine eutrophication, atmospheric acidification, and nitrogen release. The main findings were that in all 12 studies, the diets optimized for sustainability and nutrition were more plant based with reductions in meat, particularly ruminant meats such as beef and lamb (albeit with 6 of 12 of studies involving increased fish in diets). The amount of dairy products also tended to decrease in most (7 of 12) of the studies with more optimized diets. Other foods that tended to be reduced included: sweet foods (biscuits, cakes, and desserts), savory snacks, white bread, and beverages (alcoholic and soda drinks). These findings were broadly compatible with the findings of 7 out of 8 recent review articles on the sustainability of diets. The literature suggests that healthy and sustainable diets may typically be cost neutral or cost saving, but this is still not clear overall. There remains scope for improvement in such areas as expanding research where there are no competing interests; improving sustainability metrics for food production and consumption; consideration of infectious disease risks from livestock agriculture and meat; and researching optimized diets in settings where major policy changes have occurred (e.g., Mexico's tax on unhealthy food).

Keywords: carbon; dietary patterns; diets; greenhouse gases; mathematical optimization; sustainability.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Agriculture*
  • Animal Husbandry
  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Diet*
  • Diet, Healthy
  • Diet, Vegetarian
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Female
  • Food Supply*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Nutritional Status*
  • Nutritive Value*
  • Plants