How you can change your diet to benefit both your health and the planet

planetary health diet

The EAT-Lancet Commission laid out the planetary health diet on a table, weighing and measuring the daily amount of food at about 2,500 calories. (The EAT-Lancet Commission)

A plant-based diet, with less meat and more vegetables, could help save both human health and the environment, according to a report released by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 16.

“Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. However, food is currently threatening both people and planet,” a report summary reads.

More than 30 world-leading scientists were brought together to produce the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. EAT is the science-based global platform for food system transformation.

Harvard University professor Walter Willett and Potsdam Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre professor Johan Rockström presented the report at the EAT-Lancet Launch Lecture at the University of Oslo Aula, on Jan. 17, 2019.

“The unique feature of this first-ever scientific assessment is that we got the medical scholars to work together with the sustainability scholars for the first time, advancing an integrated, universal framework to quantify healthy diets and sustainable food systems,” Rockström, a sustainability expert, said at the lecture.

The report is multi-disciplinary, as well as multicultural, with representatives from 16 countries contributing to the findings.

vegetables pexels

“Humanity is facing a huge crisis today in terms of the environment, but also in terms of human health and well-being,” Willett, a specialist in epidemiology and nutrition, said at the lecture.

Humanity is facing a massive epidemic of obesity, which is affecting almost every country in the world except those currently burdened by warfare. At the same time, while there has been a decline in undernutrition, there continues to be high rates of undernutrition in the world.

There are about 1 billion people that are undernourished and several billion more are overweight or have poor quality diets. The majority of the world’s population is sub-optimally malnourished either because of too much or too little of the right foods, according to Willett.

Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined, according to the report.

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At the same time that the food system is undermining human health, it is also destroying the environment.

Global food production constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation. It threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience.

Agriculture occupies nearly 40 percent of global land, making agroecosystems the largest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. Food production is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70 percent of freshwater use. Land conversion for food production is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss, the report summary reads.

It is also the largest disrupter of the global nitrogen phosphorus and cycle nutrients leading to eutrophication, according to Dr. Rockström.

healthy food pexels

The commission set out to determine a diet that is both healthy and does not undermine the environment. The commission also set a goal that a global population of 10 billion people will follow this planetary health diet by 2050.

“This is such a challenging problem, it’s almost daunting,” Willett said at the conference. He explained the most comprehensive way to start was to create steps.

The steps include: define a healthy reference diet; define planetary boundaries; apply a global food system modeling framework to see if this healthy reference diet could fit within the constraints of what the planet can support; and the final step, after getting a net positive answer, was to outline strategies of how to go about doing this.

The commission looked at a vast amount of evidence to determine a healthy reference diet from sustainable food production.

The healthy diet they produced “is not too different than what you’ve heard in other dietary recommendations, but we spent some extra effort looking at the major protein sources,” Willett said, explaining that protein sources make a huge difference both for health and for environmental implications.

The diet consists of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars.

In order to achieve this, global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods, such as red meat and sugar, will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent, according to Willett.

The planetary health plate

A visualization of the planetary health plate. Half of which would be filled with fruits and vegetables, while the other half should consist of primarily whole grains and plant-based protein foods, with unsaturated oils and modest amounts of animal-based protein foods. (The EAT- Lancet Commission)

The food group intake ranges that the commission suggests allow flexibility to accommodate various food types, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual dietary preferences.

The diet is not a deprivation diet, as it should provide an adequate amount of calories per a day to remain both healthy and satisfied.

The perhaps most controversial aspect of the diet are the quite modest amounts of red meat from beef, pork, or lamb, which they identified as about 14 grams a day, Willett said.

By standards of North America and much of Europe, the amount is seemingly small. However, this is about the amount that people were eating in Mediterranean countries. Red meat is typically only consumed during special events in a traditional Mediterranean diet. And those who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet were found to be the healthiest people in the world.

Current Diet vs Planetary Health diet

Current Diet vs Planetary Health diet (The EAT- Lancet Commission)

Many nations are currently far off from following the planetary health diet, consuming far too much red meat and not enough vegetables, Willett said.

Shifting from unhealthy diets to the planetary health diet can prevent 11 million premature adult deaths per year. It will also drive the transition toward a sustainable global food system by 2050 that ensures healthy food for all within planetary boundaries, the report summary reads.

“Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts,” Dr. Willett said.

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