Everything You Need To Know About Healthy, Sustainable Eating

By Kate Geagan, MS, RD, Clif Nutrition Advisory Council member.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.

Thoughtful choices about what we eat can do more than provide nutrients or help unlock health and wellbeing. Food choices are one of our most intimate connections to the earth and to each other. And, our everyday decisions about what to eat hold the potential to power positive change for generations to come.

Clif Bar & Company recently brought together 20 leading voices in health and wellness (including registered dietitians) to talk about sustainable nutrition. And while each shared their unique perspective based on personal experiences and passions, common themes emerged when it came down to what constitutes a healthy, sustainable diet (and, just as importantly, how to put it into practice). One key takeaway? Good food has the power to nourish so much more than our bodies.

Read on to learn more about what these influential voices had to say, including the “what”, “why” and “how” of healthy, sustainable eating made easy.

Thoughtful food choices for what we eat

What is a Healthy, Sustainable Diet?

“Sustainability” runs deeper than just the information printed on the label. To truly impact the wellbeing of people and the planet, healthy, sustainable diets must embrace principles like the below:

  • Prioritizes a plant-based eating pattern
  • Is accessible and affordable for all eaters
  • Is culturally tailored
  • Emphasizes organic and/or sustainable ingredients
  • Values multiple stakeholders across the food system, treating people fairly and equitably
  • Restores vitality for people and planet

The bottom line? When considering sustainability, understanding a bit more about how a food is grown and made is just as important as where it fits on the plate.

How Do You Know if Foods Are Grown and Made in a Sustainable Way?

When it comes to our own kitchen, things like preparing meals from scratch, choosing in-season fruits and vegetables, and celebrating local foods are valuable steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle. But in those moments you find yourself seeking convenient, portable nutrition, it’s also good to know that healthy, sustainable diets don’t have to be exclusively homemade or comprised of 100% whole foods to deliver meaningful benefits. In fact, the participants agreed that learning to make the right choices on-the-go, including how to choose good packaged foods, is an essential step on the journey to eating better for people and the planet.

When choosing nutritious packaged foods that fit into a healthy, sustainable diet, here are a few things to look for:

  • Plant-based and whole food ingredients: The Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list can be useful tools. Look for foods that feature plenty of whole, plant-based ingredients like whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables and/or provide key nutrients like protein and fiber.
  • Sustainable sourcing practices: Ingredient sourcing is another top consideration, and the good news is you don’t have to be an expert to be a catalyst for positive change. Look for companies making commitments around things like environmental, socioeconomic, and nutrition standards in the foods they craft. Clif is an example of a pioneer company in this regard – more than 80% of the ingredients Clif purchases are USDA organic or certified sustainable.
  • Third-party sustainability certifications: Certifications and seals can help consumers easily identify how foods or ingredients are sourced or produced. Some key certifications to look for are USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified and Fair Trade Certification.
  • Public commitments from brands you choose to buy often: Brand actions and values are far more important than marketing messages. Forward-leaning companies understand that sustainability goes beyond the food label; to truly regenerate people and the planet, making commitments around things like zero waste practices, green power, eco-friendly packaging, paying employees a living wage and supporting stronger policies are all key parts to building a healthier and more equitable food future.

How to Get Started? Overcoming Barriers & Tips for Success

Ready to get started? When it comes to putting sustainability into practice, 43% of the roundtable participants agreed affordability is a top concern, while 38% cited a lack of understanding of healthy, sustainable diets. And everyone agreed breaking new habits down into simple, easy-to-follow steps is key. When asked what really, really worked with their own clients or in their own communities, here’s what they shared.

  1. Shop Smart. In addition to loading up on plenty of plant foods, be picky about packaging. Look for products that use sustainable packaging, such as 100% recycled or compostable materials.
  2. Start Small. Change doesn’t have to be all or nothing to have real impact. Starting small may even help boost the odds you stick with it. Choose one meal, or one part of your daily eating routine to get started. How can you make it a bit more nutritious and sustainable? From switching up ingredients in your smoothie, to swapping to a different brand that matches your values, try to make at least one more sustainable choice each day. Remember, progress, not perfection is the key.
  3. Aim for Half. Eating a healthy, sustainable diet starts with plenty of plants. But here’s a pro tip: aim to fill at least half of your shopping cart and half of your plate with plants at meals and snack-time to really bring this to life. The bonus? Cultures from around the world have given us incredible examples of how we might make plant-forward not just fun, but deeply flavorful and relevant to our own stories.
  4. Personalize It. New habits can often feel hard or daunting, but making it feel personal to you is a secret to success. Have a favorite family recipe or cultural dish? Try a plant-based version of it! Finding swaps that replicate the experience or connection you crave is one of the best ways to make new habits last.
  5. Snack with Purpose. On average, about 24% of an adult’s total calories come from snacks, which explains why focusing on snacking is so important. When it comes to making choices that are better for people and the planet, look for snacks made with whole food ingredients and that have certifications such as USDA Organic or Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Be sure to check out the Clif nutrition resource hub for additional tips and tools to help you choose foods that are good for people and the planet.