As we’ve discussed in the past, many life-threatening and chronic diseases are linked to poor diets, including obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular, malnutrition, stroke, pulmonary and several types of cancer (to be discussed in a later post). Unhealthy diets currently cause more death and disease worldwide than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined.
For three years, 37 experts from 16 countries worked on a report released in January 2019. They panel included people with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and politics. Commission members calculated the Earth’s available resources, and then set out to create a daily diet backed by agricultural production that would keep everyone fed in a sustainable way.
The report recommended a plant-based diet, based on previously published studies that have linked red meat to increased risk of health problems. It also comes amid recent studies of how eating habits affect the environment. Producing red meat requires land and feed to raise cattle, which also emit the greenhouse gas methane. Though estimates vary, a report by the United Nations said livestock is responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s gas emissions that warm the climate. Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at CICERO (Center for International Climate Research) in Norway, said farming practices that make animals grow faster and bigger may help. But, since methane- a powerful greenhouse gas- is part of cows and other ruminant animals natural, biological emissions, it’s difficult to significantly decrease them.
If the world followed the “Planetary Health” diet, more than 11 million premature deaths could be prevented each year, while greenhouse gas emissions would be cut and more land, water and biodiversity would be preserved. “The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” said Tim Lang, a professor at Britain’s University of London who co-led the research. Feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy, sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste. We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before.
The proposed planetary diet balances macronutrient (i.e. fat, protein, carbohydrates) required in large amounts in the human diet) benefits and calorie intake. It says global average consumption of foods such as red meat and refined gains and sugar should be cut by 50 percent, while consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes should double. For individual regions, this could mean even more dramatic changes. People in North America, for example, eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat, while people in South Asia eat only half the amount suggested by the planetary diet. Meeting the targets for starchy vegetables such as potatoes and cassava would need big changes in sub-Saharan Africa, where people on average eat 7.5 times the suggested amount.
Nutrition research is often based on observational links between diet and health, and some past associations have been invalidated. Dietary cholesterol, for example, is no longer believed to be strongly linked to blood cholesterol. As I’ve explained to patients many times, the biggest effect on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats and carbohydrates in your diet- not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food.
Although it remains important to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat, especially if you have diabetes and heart disease, for most people, dietary cholesterol is not as problematic as once believed. Maintaining a healthy diet, weight and exercise are.
The meat and dairy industries also dispute the report’s recommendations, saying their products deliver important nutrients and can be part of healthy diets. Many have urged caution before making widespread dietary recommendations, which could have unintended consequences.
Still, the EAT-Lancet report’s authors say the overall body of evidence is overwhelming in supporting reduction of red meat for optimal health and shifting toward plant-based diets. Advice to limit red meat is not new, and is tied to its saturated fat content, which is also found in cheese, milk, nuts and packaged foods with coconut and palm kernel oils. They note the recommendations are compatible with the current U.S. dietary guidelines, which say to limit saturated fat to 10 percent of calories. Whitney Linsenmeyer, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also agrees that the diet recommended by the commission is “mostly consistent” with the current dietary guidelines recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Presenting the diet at a briefing, the researchers acknowledged it was incredibly ambitious to hope everyone in the world would adopt it, especially since globally there is such an unequal access to food. “More than 800 million people have insufficient food, while many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease,” said Walter Willett of Harvard University in the United States. In the end, we’ll all benefit the closer we get.
Before even factoring in the environmental implications, the report sought to sketch out what the healthiest diet for people would look like. This healthy planetary diet encourages reduction in the unhealthy parts of our diet by substantially increasing other, more health-promoting parts:
Cut back on meat, eggs and fish:
Red meat intake should be cut to about half an ounce per day, with total meat consumption of no more than a single ounce per day, the report said.
Even eggs should be reduced to 1 1/2 at most a week. While they are no longer thought to increase the risk of heart disease studies indicate a breakfast of whole grains, nuts and fruit is healthier.
Fish would also be drastically cut back, with only an ounce of fish per day allowed under the guidelines.
People are already adopting diets somewhat similar to this such as the Mediterranean diet. And red meat consumption in the US has dropped 40 percent since it peaked in 1970.
The red meat limits would allow a “fairly hefty hamburger” every week, or a big steak once a month.
“Think of it like lobster — something that I really like, but have a few times a year,” said Willett.
Waste less food:
Emphasis would need to be placed on protecting agricultural land and fisheries, while also tackling the problem of wasted food. The study reported up to 30 percent of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted, which is incredible considering we still have over 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night.
Diet shift requires education, planning:
The dietary pattern proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is certainly possible, but may require more nutrition education and meal planning guidance,” said Linsenmeyer, an instructor of nutrition at Saint Louis University in Missouri. Here are some recommendations:
- Planning “Meatless Monday” meals that emphasize plant-based protein sources.
- Incorporating plant-based foods into traditional dishes, such as putting sauteed mushrooms into hamburger patties.(see post)
- Eating plant-based meals at breakfast and lunch, while reserving meat, chicken and fish for dinnertime.
While many cultures around the world rely heavily on beans and legumes, other countries, such as the U.S., do not. Since we aren’t as accustomed to buying and preparing them as part of our regular diet, providing education may aid in its acceptance.
We all know things have to change. Not just for us, but for everyone and everything we hold dear. I know this sounds impossible, so why try? But so was the idea of landing a man on the moon with just a slide ruler to calculate the math. Or the concept of cutting back on gas-guzzling cars spewing garbage into the sky that then rained down smog. Decades later, we can see the horizon, get up to 40 MPG and even have electric car options. It has to start somewhere. What’s the worst that can happen? We lose weight, feel healthier and save the world.