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The role of national dietary guidelines in attaining a healthy and sustainable food system

The world’s first UN Food Systems Summit, taking place in September 2021, aims to identify bold new actions to meet urgent global health and sustainability goals. To feed into the Summit process, DFN held an Independent Food Systems Dialogue in July focusing on national dietary guidelines as a lever to attain a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system, both in Australia and globally. Below we share the keynote talks from the dialogue, a link to our feedback report, and a summary of the recommendations made by our expert participants.

Food systems touch every aspect of human existence, from individual health to the health of our environment and our societies. They have a direct or indirect bearing on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Image: United Nations Development Program

Why dietary guidelines, and why now?

Well-designed dietary guidelines based on the best available evidence, free from industry influence, have significant potential to influence improved diets. They are an example of a ‘triple-duty action’ that could address multiple aspects of the Global Syndemic of obesity, undernutrition and climate change.

In high-income countries, where protein and calorie excess is the norm, shifts to plant foods correlate consistently and robustly with higher overall diet quality. These same shifts are not only desirable in terms of planetary health – which underpins all human health – but are a prerequisite to remaining below the 1.5°c warming threshold set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and securing a safe operating space for humanity. Without these shifts, led by the highest-consuming nations such as Australia, the Sustainable Development Goals will inevitably be undermined.

The world’s first UN Food Systems Summit, coming up next month, aims to identify bold new actions to align the food system with the Sustainable Development Goals. To feed into the preparations for the Summit, Doctors For Nutrition convened an Independent Food Systems Summit Dialogue in July. With dietary guidelines being one of the solution areas identified under the Summit’s Action Track on sustainable consumption, and the Australian Dietary Guidelines review underway at present, our aim was to explore the role of national dietary guidelines in attaining a healthier, more sustainable and equitable food system.

DFN brought together experts from a range of sectors to explore how national dietary guidelines can support food systems transformation

DFN’s Food Systems Summit Dialogue

Bringing together experts from a range of healthcare and food-related fields in our region and beyond, we invited participants to explore three key questions around the Australian Dietary Guidelines via focused breakout groups:

  • What would truly sustainable Australian Dietary Guidelines look like?
  • What are the existing barriers to implementation of the guidelines and how can we overcome them?
  • What fresh ideas can we consider to drive multi-sectoral implementation?

The keynote presentations from the event were recorded and are available to watch here, with thanks to our guest speakers, Dr Shireen Kassam, Professor Boyd Swinburn and Dr Sandro Demaio.

The detailed feedback from the dialogue as a whole has been submitted to the Summit convenors via the UN’s official feedback form.

Summary of key messages

The key headline recommendations emerging from the dialogue are summarised below:

  • Dietary guidelines must integrate sustainability and equity issues into their scope of evidence and resulting recommendations.
  • Australian diets need to significantly increase plant-based and minimally processed foods, with corresponding reductions in animal-sourced and highly processed foods. Messaging around the guidelines must highlight this.
  • Guidelines must be culturally responsive, reflecting diverse dietary patterns and cultural wisdom about the relationships between food, health and planet.
  • Industry interests must not have a seat at the table in the development of dietary guidelines or any other aspects of nutrition and public health policy. Profit motives of harmful interests require vigilance and strong governance.
  • The Australian Dietary Guidelines should be used to underpin nutrition education, healthy food policies and sustainable agriculture in Australia.
  • Policy coherence is essential so that ​​the dietary guidelines are not undermined by policies, regulations and programs in other sectors.
  • Coordination across government, at all levels, is required to support an enabling environment for dietary shift. Sector leaders have a key role but industry efforts need to be further incentivised and codified.
  • The dietary guidelines need to be supported by an effective implementation plan including education for health professionals, school students and the public.
  • Monitoring and evaluation is essential to measure progress towards implementation and drive targeted action to identify and fill the identified gaps, leaving nobody behind.

We are grateful to everyone who brought their expertise to contribute to a rich dialogue, resulting in a set of exciting proposals for consideration by the convenors of the Food Systems Summit.

In addition to our keynote speakers, we extend special thanks to the facilitators of the three breakout discussion rooms: Dr Talia Raphaely (consultant, Sustainably Speaking), Dr Peter Johnston (dietitian, Perfect Human Food), and Dr Aletha Ward (public health academic, University of Southern Queensland).

If you are interested in helping our work to inform the review of the Australian Dietary Guidelines, please get in touch via our contact form.

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