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The environmental impacts of rapidly changing diets and their nutritional quality in China


China’s fast-paced socio-economic transformation has been accompanied by shifting diets towards higher shares of non-starchy foods. Such trends change the dietary health risks but also potentially contribute to growing environmental problems, and thus necessitate an understanding of the links between nutritional quality and environmental impacts of Chinese diets. We assess the nutritional quality of over 21,500 individuals living in nine provinces during the 1997–2011 period and quantify their environmental footprints. Our study shows that the greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and land appropriation of the average diet increased, driven by consumption of meat, cooking oil and other non-starchy foods. While increasing meat and oil consumption has lead to an increased burden on the environment and a reduction in the nutritional quality of Chinese diets, increases in other non-starchy foods has improved nutritional quality but with increased negative environmental consequences. Our findings identify trade-offs and synergies emerging from analysing the nutrition–environment nexus, and indicate challenges as well as opportunities in reducing environmental impacts while eliminating malnutrition.

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Fig. 1: Individual daily food intake and its environmental footprints for the age group 18–30.
Fig. 2: Deviation of food intake from balanced dietary patterns for the age group 18–30.
Fig. 3: Decomposition of net changes in environmental footprints between 1997 and 2011 by nutritional quality changes for the age group 18–30.

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K.F. acknowleges the National Natural Science Foundation of China—NSFC 71628301.

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P.H., G.B., K.H. and K.F. designed the research, P.H. performed the analysis and P.H., G.B., K.H., K.F. and Y.Y. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Giovanni Baiocchi.

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He, P., Baiocchi, G., Hubacek, K. et al. The environmental impacts of rapidly changing diets and their nutritional quality in China. Nat Sustain 1, 122–127 (2018).

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