New Report Details How China’s Dietary Guidelines Could Improve Health and Sustainability

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A new report looks at China’s current Dietary Guidelines and how they could benefit from a pivot to foods better for people and the planet.

According to the new report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) widespread adoption of healthier food across China could yield a “triple win” improving metrics across health, food security, and environmental sustainability.

China’s health crisis

China’s economic growth in recent years has led to substantial dietary changes across the country as income levels rise and consumers opt for foods with higher content of fat, salt, sugar, and animal-based ingredients. The country is now witnessing a spate of health problems including obesity, high cholesterol levels, and Type-2 Diabetes.

Last year, China’s government introduced two main strategies to enhance food security and promote healthier and more sustainable diets. The “Big Food” concept aimed at providing a reliable supply of essential food groups and diversifying protein sources, enhancing domestic agricultural productivity, and minimizing food waste. Concurrently, China revised its Dietary Guidelines to encourage healthier eating practices among its population.

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Adherence to the new dietary guidelines could substantially bolster low-carbon development in the country. As per a conservative estimation, following the 2016 dietary guidelines could have reduced annual agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 146 to 202 million metric tons. The 2022 guidelines, as per the WRI, have been specifically tailored to meet both planetary and human health requirements. The real challenge, however, lies in ensuring that these guidelines are adopted widely by China’s population of more than 1.4 billion — and that’s where the importance of a behavioral science framework comes into play.

Numerous factors including geography, socioeconomics, culture, history, and gender have shaped China’s dietary habits, making it difficult to define a single common diet. From 1992 to 2017, plant-forward diets rich in grains and bean products like tofu decreased from 38 percent to 32 percent in urban areas, and from 48 percent to 42 percent in rural areas, replaced in large part by animal products.

Adopting the 2022 guidelines, which mirror the Eat-Lancet planetary health diet, would not only boost public health but also yield significant environmental benefits. But large-scale shifts to China’s preferred diet is a challenge.

Behavioral changes

WRI had identified 57 behavior change interventions to encourage plant-based diets beneficial for human and planetary health, primarily drawn from Western food service experiences. This framework has been customized to suit the Chinese context, focusing on six key areas: people, product, policy, presentation, promotion, and placement.

These interventions involve engaging food retailers, influencers, and experts to endorse healthy, sustainable options, altering the type and variety of food offered, integrating climate, health, and nutrition into policymaking, reimagining food menus, labels, and messaging, and using marketing, communication, and pricing strategies for promoting sustainable choices. Using social media platforms to disseminate health and sustainability messages could also prove highly effective.

A people-centered approach would involve training food vendors, dietitians, and influencers to promote healthier and more sustainable choices. Involving medical professionals in awareness campaigns about the significance of adhering to China’s Dietary Guidelines and specifically targeting those who primarily cook in their households could be pivotal.

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Product interventions should aim at altering the food variety offered. A practical example is tofu, a protein-rich food commonly consumed in China. Leveraging its popularity and familiarity among the Chinese could lead to substituting meat with tofu in numerous dishes, offering a healthier and more sustainable option.

Policy-level interventions are equally essential. To shape food choices, China needs to incorporate climate, health, and nutrition considerations into policy decisions. This approach aligns with a 2023 recommendation by the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy. Concrete actions could include launching nutritional campaigns in accordance with China’s Dietary Guidelines, educating families about the climate impact of their food choices, and providing financial aid to less affluent communities to promote the purchase of healthier, more sustainable foods.

Presentation and promotion interventions could revolve around reimagining food menus, labels, and messaging and using marketing and communications strategies to promote healthy, sustainable options.

Placement interventions entail altering how food is displayed and accessed to promote healthier, sustainable options. This could involve dedicating more display or screen space to sustainable menu items or adding fresh fruits and vegetables to food displays to encourage healthier choices.


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