Global diets are converging, and that’s good news for our health and the environment

Global food trends showcase both how far we’ve come, and what problems still need to be addressed.

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New research at the University of Kent found that diets are undergoing complex changes worldwide. The team reports that parts of the world are shifting towards healthier diets, while other areas are still experiencing malnutrition and obesity as a result of poor food access and security. The overall dynamics also have important implications for environmental sustainability, both good and bad.

What’s cooking?

“There are clear shifts in global food supply, and these trends may be responsible for strong improvements in nutrition in some parts of the world,” says Dr Bentham, co-lead author of the paper and a Lecturer in Statistics at Kent’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science.

“However, obesity remains a long-term concern, and we hope that our research will open doors to analysis of the health impacts of global diet patterns. Equally, we must also consider carefully the environmental impacts of these trends.”

For the study, the team analyzed food supply data for 171 countries from the 1960s to the 2010s. They report that South Korea, China, and Taiwan have experienced the largest changes in food supply throughout that timeline, with animal-sourced foods (such as meat and eggs), sugar, vegetables, seafood, and oil crops becoming a much larger proportion of the area’s overall diet. Such a shift in diet is to be expected in developing countries, as more disposable income means people can afford more varied meals with more expensive ingredients.

On the other hand, many Western countries have seen a decline in animal-sourced foods and sugar consumption; this trend is especially noticeable in high-income English-speaking countries such as the UK, US, Canada, and Australia, they report. This is likely the product of increased public awareness of the role our diets play in our health and of the latitude to pick what we eat offered by such rich countries (a product of varied supply and high incomes). But this trend isn’t limited to the western world. Many countries around the world have seen an uptake in vegetable-based diets, the team explains.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst-off of all global regions in this regard. It still lacks adequate access to a diverse food supply, which the team notes can help explain why the region is still rife with malnutrition.

Despite the limitations here, shifts towards diet adjustment in the rest of the world remain significant. The decline in consumption for animal-sourced foodstuffs and sugar and the greater availability of vegetables are very encouraging to see. Such shifts may be paving the way towards more sustainable, healthier, and more balanced diets, at least in some parts of the world. The team notes that in South Korea, China, and Taiwan in particular, the greater consumption of sugar and animal foodstuffs is correlated with a dramatic rise in obesity rates. Taken together, these findings showcase just how important diet is to public health and environmental protection efforts at the same time.

“Advances in science and technology, together with growing incomes, have allowed many nations to have access to a diversity of foods,” explains Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, the paper’s other co-lead author.

“We must harness these advances and set in place policies that provide healthier foods for people everywhere, especially those who can currently least afford them.”

The paper “Multidimensional characterization of global food supply from 1961 to 2013” has been published in the journal Nature Food.

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