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Nourishing Our Future: The Role of RDNs in Advancing Food Sustainability

Savannah Helm

By Alicia Jerome MS, RDN

As registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs), we hold a profound responsibility not only to promote optimal nutrition but also to advocate for food systems that support the health of individuals and the planet. In this era of escalating environmental challenges and global health crises, understanding, and integrating principles of food sustainability into our practice is imperative. Let's explore what sustainability means for our food supply, assess the current state of affairs, and explain why this is pivotal in our profession.


What is a Sustainable Food Supply?

At its core, sustainability in our food supply involves practices that ensure food production meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable food supply, from the perspective of RDNs, encompasses a multifaceted approach that intertwines nutritional quality, environmental impact, social equity, and economic viability:

  1. Defining Nutritional Quality: Emphasizing whole, minimally processed foods that nourish the body while minimizing reliance on unhealthy additives and preservatives. Prioritizing plant-based diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, which have been linked to improved health outcomes and reduced risk of chronic diseases.
  1. Defining Environmental Impact: Advocating for agricultural practices that preserve soil health, conserve water resources, and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable food production seeks to minimize harm to the environment by conserving resources, reducing pollution, and preserving biodiversity. This entails adopting practices such as organic farming, agroecology, and regenerative agriculture, which work in harmony with natural ecosystems rather than against them. 
    • As a note, biodiversity encompasses the diverse array of living species on Earth, interdependent and essential for the functioning of healthy ecosystems. These ecosystems, crucial for providing the air we breathe and the food we consume, rely on a broad spectrum of animals, plants, and microorganisms. Furthermore, biodiversity holds significance as it serves as the foundation for a considerable portion, estimated at 25-50%, of medicinal resources derived from various plants and animals1.
  1. Defining Social Equity: Addressing disparities in food access, affordability, and cultural relevance to ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to make healthy food choices. Advocating for policies that support small-scale farmers, indigenous communities, and food sovereignty while challenging inequities within the food system, such as food deserts and food insecurity.
    • “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods” 2.
  1. Defining Economic Viability: Promoting fair trade practices, transparent supply chains, and investments in local food economies to support livelihoods of farmers, workers, and food producers. This involves fair pricing mechanisms, support for small-scale farmers, and investments in infrastructure that enable efficient and resilient food production and distribution networks.

For RDNs, integrating these principles into our practice involves not only counseling clients on nutrition but also advocating for changes that address the root causes of food insecurity, environmental degradation, and the good of mankind.


How bad is our current situation?

The current state of our food system paints a sobering picture of unsustainability across multiple fronts:

  1. Environmental Degradation: Industrial agriculture, characterized by monoculture crops, heavy use of chemical inputs, and deforestation, has led to soil degradation, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Climate change further exacerbates these challenges, with extreme weather events disrupting agricultural production and threatening food security. In Mark Hyman’s book, Food Fix, he states, “Research shows that by 2050, increasing CO2 levels and poor soil quality will worsen the nutrient composition of the food we grow, which could result in zinc deficiency for 175 million people, protein deficiency for 122 million, and iron deficiency in 1 billion”3.
  1. Public Health Crisis: Poor dietary choices driven by factors such as food affordability, accessibility, and aggressive marketing of processed foods contribute to rising rates of obesity, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases. The overuse of pesticides and antibiotics also contributes to the emergence of resistant pathogens, posing risks to both human health and agricultural sustainability. RDNs are no stranger to the solemn statistics of our health, chronic disease, and shortening life (and health) spans.
    • Hyman provides the perspective: “The spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases is a rapidly growing threat across the globe, contributing to the deaths of 700,000 people world-wide each year, and it’s predicted that by 2050 this global epidemic will kill more people than cancer” 33.
  1. Food Insecurity and Inequity: Food insecurity affects millions worldwide, exacerbated by factors such as poverty, conflict, and unequal access to resources. The global food system perpetuates inequalities, with small-scale farmers, indigenous communities, and agricultural workers often marginalized and manipulated.
  1. Economic Vulnerability: Small-scale farmers, agricultural workers, and food producers face economic challenges due to consolidation of agribusiness, volatile commodity markets, and unequal distribution of subsidies. Market-driven approaches prioritize profit over sustainability, leading to exploitation of natural resources (like fresh water, arable land, and fossil fuels) and labor. 
    • Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, offers this viewpoint: “In this new, consolidated era of agricultural efficiency, small farmers were left with few outlets … and without direct access to consumers, many sold farms to developers and cashed out”4.

As RDNs, we must recognize the interconnectedness of these issues and advocate for holistic solutions that address the social, economic, and environmental determinants of health.


The Importance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists 

The integration of sustainability principles into the practice of RDNs is paramount for several reasons:

  1. Optimal Health Outcomes: Sustainable dietary patterns promote health and well-being by emphasizing nutrient-rich foods, dietary diversity, and mindful eating practices. By advocating for plant-based diets, whole foods, and sustainable food choices, RDNs can empower individuals to make informed decisions that support their health and the health of the planet.
    • Consider this statistic: The U.S. could save more than $2.7 trillion in healthcare costs if everyone were to add a mere ½ cup of fruit or vegetables to their diet each day1.
  1. Environmental Stewardship: RDNs play a crucial role in raising awareness about the environmental impact of food choices and promoting sustainable food systems. By encouraging clients to consider factors such as food miles, water usage, and packaging waste, RDNs can help reduce the carbon footprint of diets and promote ecologically sustainable lifestyles. Specific ways to help include getting involved with food pantries, local farms, urban farms, community gardens, and encouraging home grown gardens, etc. 
    • For example, an article in Nutrition Reviews put protein consumption and global impact into perspective. “Reducing total protein consumption by 25%, while also reducing the proportion of animal food protein consumed, would contribute to substantial climate change mitigation equivalent to approximately 8% of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions … The associated water savings under the same scenario is equal to 4% of all the freshwater used annually in the United States or 14% of the freshwater used for irrigation and livestock”5.
  1. Food for All: RDNs have a responsibility to address inequities in food access, affordability, and cultural relevance within their practice. By advocating for policies that promote food sovereignty, support local food economies, and address barriers to food security, RDNs can contribute to greater inclusion within the food system.
  1. Professional Responsibility: As trusted experts in nutrition and health, RDNs have a professional obligation to uphold ethical standards and promote evidence-based practices that prioritize the well-being of individuals and communities. By integrating sustainability into our practice, RDNs can align our values with our professional responsibilities and contribute to positive societal change.

In conclusion, the integration of sustainability principles into the practice of RDNs is not only essential for promoting health and well-being but also for addressing pressing global challenges such as changes to climate, food insecurity, and equal health opportunities for all. By embracing a holistic approach to nutrition that considers the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic factors, RDNs can play a pivotal role in advancing food sustainability and shaping a healthier, more equitable future for all.



  1. Hawkins, Irana W. Promoting Biodiversity in Food Systems. CRC Press, 25 Oct. 2018.
  2. Food Sovereignty | USFSA. Accessed February 19, 2024.
  3. Mark Hyman. Food Fix. Hachette UK, 25 Feb. 2020.
  4. Barber, Dan. The Third Plate Field Notes on the Future of Food. Penguin Group USA, 2015.
  5. Gardner, C. D., Hartle, J. C., Garrett, R. D., Offringa, L. C., & Wasserman, A. S. (2019). Maximizing the intersection of human health and the health of the environment with regard to the amount and type of protein produced and consumed in the United States. Nutrition reviews77(4), 197–215.




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