Eating to save the planet: How hard could it be?  

  • 06.12.2023
  • article
  • Cooking and Growing
  • Diet and Health
  • Food Education
  • Lifestyle
  • Bonnie Welch

Here, we look at just how easy it can be to fall off the sustainable diet wagon – and into a bucket of late-night spicy chicken thighs. The SFT’s Head of Projects, Bonnie Welch, puts her own eating habits under the spotlight, seeking to answer the question, “Just how hard can it be to eat sustainably?”.

I’ve worked for the Sustainable Food Trust for over six years, and during that time I’ve tried hard to practise what I preach in terms of eating sustainably. However, when we published our Feeding Britain from the Ground Up report earlier this year, I began to question the success of my efforts. And so, to test the report’s premise that “we should align our diets to what can be sustainably produced here in the UK”, for the past two weeks I’ve been keeping a food diary – from breakfast through to dinner – to see how sustainable my own diet really is.

The report states, “a UK-wide transition to sustainable and regenerative farming practices, to tackle the climate, nature and public health crises, could produce enough food to maintain and potentially even improve current levels of self-sufficiency, provided we ate differently, ate less and cut food waste.” Sounds positive in terms of providing a vision for a more sustainable system.

And in many ways, the report’s conclusions in terms of food production are very encouraging: following a nationwide transition to sustainable food production, there would be plenty of UK-grown vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains available for consumption, and only slightly less beef, lamb and dairy (with livestock reared in high-welfare, pasture-based systems). The challenge, for most meat-eaters out there, would be the significant reduction in the amount of pork, chicken and eggs available (due to the move away from permanently housed flocks and herds that are fed grain and imported protein feeds, to free-range, high-welfare systems).

As a focus group of one, my conclusions should be taken with a pinch of salt (although not too much if we’re talking healthy diets), and it is probably worth mentioning the various factors that influence my food choices. These are, namely, my food preferences (I enjoy most foods, have no food allergies, nor do any religious factors impact what I eat); my home environment (I live with one other person and we share cooking); the amount of money I am able (and prepared) to spend on food (we are a middle-income household and share the cost of food); my daily routine (I work five days a week and often eat out at weekends); and my current attempts at eating sustainably (I try to eat organic as much as possible, and locally grown or reared when I can. I eat an average amount of food per day and try to waste as little as possible).

Confession time

 For me, at this time of year, breakfast, lunch and dinner looks something like the following:

Breakfast: A bowl of muesli with oat milk and a piece of fruit.

Lunch: Vegetable/bean soup with sourdough bread and plenty of butter.

Dinner: Bean/beef stew or curry with rice; or a vegetable pasta dish with cheese.

Snacks: Mince pies or dark chocolate.

Below is a comparison between the amount of UK-grown food available for consumption according to Feeding Britain modelling, and my own consumption, based on an average across a two-week period. Several factors, including the difficulty of estimating the weight of ingredients, particularly if they’ve already been cooked or processed (e.g., pasta/butter/cheese), mean that the figures are quite rough.

It’s also worth re-iterating that the ‘grams per day’ available according to the Feeding Britain report only account for the UK-grown portion of our diets, and do not include foods that we might want to continue to import, including those which cannot be produced in the UK.

Finally, and my no means least, it’s perhaps also worth noting that my food journaling coincided with several birthdays (including my own), and thus the consumption of more cake, and more ‘eating out’ than I would normally do.

The results

The figures below are based on total food consumed for each food type over two weeks (detailed in the brackets), divided by 14 days to get the ‘grams per day’ figure. In the case of eggs, the figure refers to the number of eggs per week.

Beef: Of the 26 grams per day available under the Feeding Britain model, I ate approximately 15 grams (including two portions of beef stew).

Lamb: Of the 8 grams per day available under the Feeding Britain model, I didn’t eat any lamb.

Chicken: Of the 13 grams per day available under the Feeding Britain model, I ate approximately 14 grams (a portion of spicy boneless chicken thighs).

Pork: Of the 6 grams per day available under the Feeding Britain model, I ate approximately 12 grams (half a portion of pork curry and two rashers of bacon).

Eggs: Of the two eggs per week available, I ate two eggs (1 portion of egg on toast, as well as eggs in cakes and mince pies).

Dairy: Of the 61 grams of milk solids (i.e., the fraction of milk left after water is removed) available per day, I consumed 33 grams (including butter, cheese and cream). I didn’t consume any milk in its original form. 

Vegetables: Of the 194 grams per day available, I ate approximately 150 grams (including in stews, curries, pasta dishes, soups and sandwiches).

Pulses: Of the 35 grams per day available, I ate approximately 28 grams (a haricot bean stew which served as two meals).

Cereals: Of the 232 grams per day available, I ate approximately 100 grams (two portions of breakfast muesli, 12 slices of sourdough bread, three portions of pasta and cakes).

Fruit: Of the 71 grams available per day, I ate approximately 10 grams (one apple and a plum).

Potatoes: Of the 118 grams available per day, I ate approximately 57 grams (baked potatoes, chips and crisps).

What is not included in this comparison is the amount of vegetable oil or sugar that I consumed, as these things were incredibly hard to quantify, particularly in relation to processed foods and the food I ate at restaurants. Nor does this include the foods grown outside of the UK, for instance coconut milk and cocoa. In the Feeding Britain report, fish and wild game were not included, nor were drinks such as tea, coffee and alcohol or food flavourings like salt, so I didn’t pay much attention these in my diary keeping.

So, to summarise the results:

  1. I need to eat more fruit.
  2. I should consider recipes which include more pulses.
  3. I could eat significantly more grain-based foods.
  4. There is room for slightly more grass-fed beef and lamb in my diet.
  5. I should lay off the bacon (although one rasher per week doesn’t seem like much).

Three takeaways (although I only ate one this week) 

  1. Convenience vs conscience

I am fortunate enough to be able to buy my veg from Riverford, in the form of a fortnightly organic veg box delivered to the door. Through my work, I am also in touch with several organic livestock farmers close to Bristol and try to buy my meat directly from them. The rest of my food comes from a local independent shop and occasionally one of the major supermarkets.

When travelling and on the move, I often opt for the least bad fast-food option on offer – normally a takeaway sandwich – and on average, I probably consume one takeaway meal (often a vegetable curry) each fortnight. For lunches, I try to eat leftovers from the night before, however, occasionally (if there were no leftovers) I opt for ready-made soups, which often contain shockingly high levels of sugar and salt. Rarely do I have time to prepare food in the morning, and for this same reason, I quite often skip a proper breakfast, opting for a big mug of coffee and slice of toast at the office instead.

  1. Enjoyment vs ethics

When eating at a restaurant, especially if sharing food is an option, I’m less fussy and quite happy to eat in line with what others choose. At times, this means turning a blind eye to the more-than-likely industrially produced chicken or pork.

Clearly, I should be eating more fresh fruit, and at this time of year it should still be possible to find autumn grown apples and pears, however, after several soft and furry fruit experiences, I can’t say I relish the thought of an apple-a-day. Perhaps an alternative would be to consume frozen soft fruit or fruits preserved in other ways as an addition to breakfast cereals or as a dessert.

It’s also perhaps worth remembering at this point, the conclusion from Feeding Britain, that if we were to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day, we would still need to import some produce to meet the demand, even with a doubling of UK production. While this could be viewed as a tension between health recommendations and diet sustainability, it is absolutely possible to import foods in a sustainable way – in fact, due to the UK’s high population density and relatively constrained cropland area, trade will continue to play an important role in feeding the UK moving forwards.

  1. Transparency vs UPFs

A major challenge in trying to eat sustainably is knowing what’s really in your food, and where it comes from. This is, of course, an issue with ultra-processed foods which often comprise a multitude of ingredients, often with lots of salt, sugar, fat and additives. Complex food labelling also adds to the confusion. For instance, when it comes to pork products, you almost need to go to the shops armed with a handbook on the difference between ‘organic’, ‘free-range’ and ‘outdoor bred’.

Deciphering restaurant menus is another issue. ‘Grass-fed beef’ for instance doesn’t necessarily mean 100% grass-fed, and I’m always sceptical of the use of ‘local’ on the menu. 


Unless you are a farmer or grower who is able to be relatively self-sufficient in staple foods, it seems to me that eating sustainably often requires compromise – sometimes because of price, but often due to availability, social setting or time constraints.

Whether or not the Feeding Britain ‘diet’ should be read as the gold standard is another question, not least because it represents just one version of what a regeneratively farmed UK could produce. However, in undertaking this experiment, I have realised that knowing the real story behind your food is hard, and that’s speaking as someone who is invested in eating sustainably.

We shouldn’t underestimate how challenging it is to be a truly ‘conscious eater’ – in terms of time and effort, willpower and dedication. However, going forwards, I will try harder to decipher labels, and to ask questions in restaurants about food provenance. Ultimately, though, there is only so much I can do as an individual, so perhaps my most important action will be to support the organisations, food companies and political parties working to accelerate the transition to a truly sustainable food system.

Featured image available here under a Creative Commons license. All other photographs taken by Bonnie Welch.

What is healthy, sustainable food? For more information on the Sustainable Food Trust’s vision of how we can eat more sustainably, check out our report, Feeding Britain from the Ground Up.

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