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New research proposes how to ensure adequate nutrition while minimizing chronic disease and environmental impact.

Animal-source foods—meat, fish, eggs, and dairy—play an important role globally in ensuring healthy and sustainable diets, according to a review published January 19, 2023 in the Journal of Nutrition. In particular, many people suffering from undernutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia would benefit from increased consumption of nutrient-dense animal-source foods.

However, it is essential that animal-source foods are produced in alignment with local ecosystems and at the appropriate scale, which will vary by context. The review also suggests that processed meat should be limited, and red meat and saturated fat should be moderated to lower noncommunicable disease risk, and that this will also reduce the environmental footprint of diets.

Lead author and Research Advisor on the Knowledge Leadership team at GAIN, Ty Beal said, “Discussions around animal-source foods are often polarizing. Animal-source foods can be environmentally damaging, but they are also an essential part of food security and nutritious diets, so we cannot simply write them off as unsustainable. And as we have demonstrated in this review, livestock can be produced in ways that contribute to sustainability, through circular and diverse agroecosystems.”

“The amount and type of animal-source foods that are considered healthy and environmentally sustainable are dependent on local contexts, health priorities and a whole-of-diet approach,” said Mario Herrero, the Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences, director of Food Systems & Global Change at Cornell, and Cornell Atkinson Scholar. “It’s a complex, moving target and public health guidance is often ambiguous. Based on recent research, 98 countries have food-based dietary guidelines, yet most of them lack recommendations on specific minimum or maximum intake of animal-source foods.”

The research was carried out by academics from a wide range of NGOs and universities including GAIN, Cornell, FAO, Stanford and others. They orchestrated a critical review of the evidence about the health and environmental benefits and risks of animal-source foods. As well as coming from a variety of organizations, the researchers follow a wide range of personal diets, from fully plant-based to vegetarian and omnivore. They simply followed the data, rigorously.

Anne Mottet, livestock development officer from FAO added, “Balancing nutrition and sustainability considerations is complex because there is no single best way to produce animal-source foods. It must be grounded in what’s needed in a particular area, based on a combination of nutritional and environmental needs. We urge governments and civil society organisations to work with local stakeholders to develop policies, programmes, and incentives that encourage best practices to produce the appropriate amount of animal-source foods in sustainable ways.”

The regions with the highest consumption of animal-source foods are Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and high-income countries. In these contexts, a focus on reducing excess consumption is important, both for human health and environmental sustainability.

Christopher Gardner, Rehborg Farquhar professor of medicine, at Stanford School of Medicine commented, “My research is focused domestically in the US, where animal-source food consumption levels are among the highest in the world, and where the emphasis among my community of health professionals consistently leans toward decreasing current consumption levels. However, working with this extraordinary team of colleagues with a more global perspective was eye-opening for me. There are clearly geographic locations and certain populations that can benefit from increasing animal-source foods, and ways to approach this that optimize environmental factors.”

While the review demonstrated the importance of animal-source foods, it also discussed the need to increase consumption of health-protective minimally processed plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.


The review, titled “Friend or foe? The role of animal-source foods in healthy and environmentally sustainable diets”, published January 19, 2023 in the Journal of Nutrition.


Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Department of Global Development and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, Cornell University, Integrative Agroecology Group, Agroscope, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, University of California, Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine and Brown School, Washington University

A version of this article first appeared in GAIN's newsfeed.

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