Dietary guidelines and sustainability: a comparison between the US and Nordic countries

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Each country has its own set of dietary guidelines. These are recommendations on what to include in your diet and what to limit in order to stay fit and healthy. It’s up for debate whether these guidelines promote balanced and accurate information. But a crucial component of diet that is often left out of these guidelines is sustainability. In order to highlight this problem, it’s worth drawing a comparison between the dietary guidelines of the US and the Nordic countries, as they differ significantly in terms of sustainable nutrition.


USDA dietary guidelines are not sustainable

If we wanted to grow enough food to feed the entire world according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, then we would need an area of arable land the size of Canada (3.8 million square miles). This goes to show that these guidelines promote an unsustainable diet – it puts immense pressure on our natural resources.

In August, researchers published a study in PLOS One that analysed crop data and yields at national, continental, and global levels. The researchers wrote:

“Our analysis shows that there is not enough land for the world to adhere to the USDA guidelines under current agricultural practices. This is despite the fact that the USDA guideline diet is already less land-intensive than the current U.S. diet.”

The standard North and South American diets are very high in animal products, which entails all kinds of environmental damage. Yet even if everyone in North and South America restricted their meat consumption to the more moderate levels recommended by the USDA, there still wouldn’t be enough land in the world to meet their agricultural needs. This suggests that health can’t be the only factor taken into account when devising dietary guidelines.

Nordic recommendations

The new Nordic eating guidelines – those that apply to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – include the following recommendations:

1. Eat more fruit and vegetables every day 
2. Eat more whole grain produce 
3. Eat more food from the seas and lakes 
4. Eat higher-quality meat, and less of it 
5. Eat more food from wild landscapes 
6. Eat organic produce whenever possible 
7. Avoid food additives 
8. Eat more meals based on seasonal produce 
9. Eat more home-cooked food 
10. Produce less waste


The World Health Organization conducted a review of the Guidelines for the New Nordic Diet (NDD) and found that it was effective at preventing non-communicable diseases, which consist primarily of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. These diseases are the leading cause of death on a global scale, so WHO praised the NDD, as well as the Mediterranean diet, for its healthfulness.

WHO also noted the impressive environmental benefits of the NDD. Its review stated that the Nordic countries have adopted:

“collaborative regional approach within the wider Region to improve the diet, reduce production and consumption impacts on the environment, increase intervention sustainability and facilitate the achievement of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].”

Other researchers have found that a plant-based diet is the most sustainable. Indeed, a study from the UK discovered that the vegan diet produces the least greenhouse gases. Comparisons were made between meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.

About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.

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