Blog Post

Transforming food systems for sustainable healthy diets: A global imperative

The impacts of our diets extend well beyond mealtime to affect our health and well-being. Unhealthy diets underpin many public health challenges, including all forms of malnutrition and diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Many countries are facing a double burden of malnutrition—meaning that undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies coexist with overweight and obesity, or diet-related NCDs. Unhealthy diets are the leading risk factor for NCDs, which are responsible for more than 73% of deaths globally. Evidence suggests that one in five lives could be saved by improving diets. Yet, despite advancements, unhealthy diets and all forms of malnutrition still affect too many people worldwide.

So, what are healthy diets, and why and how should we be transforming food systems to achieve them?

Healthy diets provide the nutrients needed for an active, healthy life. They include a diversity of foods—fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and animal-source foods. They include limited sugar, salt, and fat while providing essential nutrients and health-protective elements.

But for many people around the world, healthy diets are often not desirable, affordable, accessible, or available for a variety of reasons. These reasons are complex and interconnected: Through our work on diets and food environments in low- and middle-income countries, for example, we see that people are exposed to, and consuming, more and more unhealthy ultra-processed foods as a result of changing lifestyles, as well as the increased availability and marketing of these often inexpensive foods. In contrast, many nutritious foods are out of reach for too many people, especially marginalized populations. Improving diets, therefore, is a global imperative that will require addressing multiple issues across the food system to achieve meaningful and sustainable changes in diets and, in turn, nutrition and health outcomes such as reducing micronutrient deficiencies and preventing an increase in overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases.

In our interconnected world, food systems and diets affect not only our nutrition and health but also our environment. Food system activities contribute an estimated one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and often negatively affect land quality, water use, and biodiversity. In turn, these impacts have repercussions for food systems, with climate change and natural resource degradation harming our food supply and the nutritional content of crops.

The urgency to transform our food systems for health and sustainability resonates more strongly than ever. The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition underscores the need for a comprehensive approach, one that places healthy diets at the core while embracing economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability. Prioritizing diets as a critical entry point for tackling all forms of malnutrition allows us to consider the wide range of possible policies and actions to meet realistic, measurable goals for food systems transformation.

In IFPRI’s newly released 2024 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) on Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Nutrition, we emphasize the need for sustainable healthy diets and provide evidence-based recommendations on ways to make the foods that form these diets more desirable, affordable, accessible, and available. This holistic approach recognizes the interplay between dietary patterns, food environments, food production, food-related policies, and broader societal and environmental factors.

Optimal dietary intake involves consuming adequate quantities of foods from diverse food groups and avoiding overconsumption of unhealthy foods. Achieving this will require context-specific policies and initiatives that focus on improving demand, food environments, supply, and governance related to healthy plant- and animal-source foods as well as unhealthy foods, along with linking to complementary systems like health and social protection. We need context-specific strategies, such as behavior change communication coupled with social assistance programs, that can address the primary barriers to sustainable healthy diets and thus, help shift consumer preferences toward healthier food choices. We also need to address well-known challenges around the commercial production and marketing of ultra-processed and other unhealthy foods. Changes in food environments are critical here, such as using regulations and laws to support healthy food environments. Actions are also needed to enhance affordability, an important aspect of demand, by promoting pro-poor economic growth, realigning agricultural policies to support nutrient-dense foods, and improving infrastructure and logistics to lower the relative cost of healthy foods and improve their accessibility and availability.

Ensuring sustainable healthy diets for all will require managing the actions of diverse stakeholders and navigating different interests. Tradeoffs need to be identified and negotiated, including across health, sustainability, and development goals. We also need to address remaining data gaps. Despite substantial efforts, publicly available information on food systems remains insufficient: We lack data on dietary intake patterns, drivers of food choice, food environments, and environmental impacts. Data provide important evidence necessary to shape effective interventions and policies to address the challenges at hand. Additionally, data are essential for measuring impact and progress, guiding policymakers in making decisions on how to best invest in and leverage food systems and complementary systems for improving diets and, in turn, nutrition and health outcomes.

Last, but not least, we need a strong and sustained global commitment to facilitating sustainable healthy diets the world over. Although global commitments on nutrition are strong, progress in deploying effective strategies, financing, and accountability mechanisms has not been fast enough to meet Sustainable Development Goal 2 targeting malnutrition. Meeting this goal will be no small feat, but evidence is emerging on the multi-pronged effort required to address unacceptably high levels of malnutrition. In our dynamic world, it is crucial that we build more evidence to strengthen these ongoing efforts. We must identify successes, but we must also identify and learn from failures—fast—because there is little time to lose, especially for those who are most vulnerable to the combined impacts of climate change and social inequalities.

The 2024 GFPR explores recent evidence on what works and what does not, the challenges we face, and opportunities for transforming food systems to ensure sustainable healthy diets for everyone. Read the report.

Purnima Menon is CGIAR and IFPRI Senior Director for Food and Nutrition Policy; Deanna Olney is Director of IFPRI's Nutrition, Diets, and Health Unit.