How to Have a Sustainable Relationship with Food

With the rise of plant-based diets and flexitarianism, building a sustainable relationship with food means striking the balance between planetary and personal health. Sophie Parsons looks into how what we eat can combine politics and flavour.

In late March, as the world went into lockdown and we were forced to find new sources of at-home entertainment, many of us looked to home baking for comfort. Food offered the perfect distraction to the unprecedented; no longer simply a means to survival, our relationship with food has become entangled with emotions, politics, identity and community. 

For environmental activists, how and what we eat can offer an opportunity to extend our personal hopes and fights for the planet into our everyday decisions, with each meatless meal and oat milk coffee an extension of our efforts to preserve the planet’s health. With the knowledge that what we are eating simultaneously has the potential to impact global carbon emissions and provide us with comfort in the wake of global unrest, how can we find a sustainable balance of both pleasure and politics?

Food is Politics

The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ has inspired a vast range of cookbooks, television shows and nutrition plans, increasing awareness around the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. However, as we continue to learn about the intrinsic relationship between what we eat and the global climate crisis, the phrase may have taken on a new meaning entirely. Mindful eating, low-waste, flexi, veggie, plant-based: how we eat and the labels we attribute to our diets have come to be a direct reflection of our own personal politics. 

In a similar vein to society turning to banana bread amid a global pandemic, taking on these dietetic labels can offer some solace to an otherwise overwhelming fear for the future of our planet. Plant-based diets have become synonymous with the fight against climate change, with the global Veganuary movement having recently reached 1 million participants since its launch seven years ago. In attaching a sense of advocacy to our relationship with food, alongside the knowledge that how we are eating is ‘doing good’, sustainability can feel somewhat easier to achieve.

The late Anthony Bourdain famously professed ‘that food is politics’, having invested much of his career as a chef depicting the global impact food can have on community, lifestyle and the planet. In his 2017 documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, Bourdain acknowledged the importance of personal values being at the crux of sustainable habits. The film goes on to champion the small actions we as individuals can partake in to lessen our waste and create a better relationship with the food on our plates. For Martyn Odell, this begins with meal planning: “I am trying to build a healthy relationship between food, health, food waste and sustainability. Sustainability often comes across as daunting and complex, when it doesn’t have to be!” Lagom Chef, Odell’s newly launched business, offers individuals the opportunity to better understand what’s on their plates, while removing the fore-thinking that often seems daunting in achieving a low-waste diet. Simplicity, Odell suggests, is the key to sustainability. He goes on to recommend an initial approach of plan, buy, cook, eat, compost or recycle; once that feels achievable, you can start introducing an organic and seasonal approach. “I think people take on too much and try to be perfect straight away,” he says.

Combining Creativity with Knowledge

Attempts to achieve perfection within activism, as alluded to by Odell, can all too often overshadow our original motivations for change. For a habit to be sustainable, it must feel achievable. The rise of ‘flexitarianism’ shows us just this, with campaigns such as Meat-Free Monday having encouraged 21% of UK households to cut down on their meat intake. Removing the pressures around what we eat not only reduces the stress surrounding our diet, but also improves any possibility of longevity.

For Megan Hallett, a women’s health expert and trainee nutritionist, echoes this. “Striving to be perfect when it comes to our diets is all too common and the pressure of eating a particular way, or not eating particular foods, can really interfere with our mental health. Our relationship with food is just as important as the food itself.” Having specialised in hormonal health, Hallett’s practice advocates for balance and a careful consideration of stress hormones. “Cortisol (a stress hormone) can interfere with our gut health and thus, mental health, skin health, immune system and how well we absorb our nutrients. If we are stressed out about the food we are eating, we may not even be absorbing it optimally anyway.”

Building a balanced relationship with food could, therefore, be about prioritising our minds, bodies and taste buds while still considering the health of the planet. In eco-chef Tom Hunt’s ‘Root-to-Fruit’ manifesto, he explains how he believes this to be at the core of sustainable eating: “Every meal we eat offers us a unique opportunity to support people and Earth through the food we buy – that with a little care, ends in deliciousness.” Deliciousness is key. He goes on to explore much of what we know to be the fundamentals of a sustainable diet – seasonality, mostly plant-based, local and biodiversity – all while reinforcing the requisite of taste. “The solution to food waste is easy – celebrate good food.”

As individuals, changing our eating habits to better consider the environment is perhaps one of the most tangible actions that we ourselves can instigate. Sustainability, however, is a dual meaning word and in order to achieve a degree of longevity, the joy of food must be held in equal measure. As put by Hunt, eating for pleasure with both creativity and knowledge in mind “is a delicious way to maintain a good personal and planetary health, whilst discovering flavoursome ways of eating.”