By 2050, the world will have nearly 10 billion people. One looming challenge will be how to feed them healthfully and without wreaking even more havoc on the environment. Our current eating habits, especially in wealthy Western countries, are responsible for creating an excess of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, largely due to our penchant for red meat and other animal foods. What’s more, the typical Western diet plays a major role in obesity and other chronic health problems; meanwhile, millions of people elsewhere are undernourished.
So how do we feed the world without destroying our health and the planet? Released earlier this year, a report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health proposed some solutions. It laid out a scientific framework for a “planetary health diet” that takes into consideration both the health of the world’s population and that of the planet. The Commission gathered scientists from 16 countries, with specialties in such areas as public health, environmental sustainability, agriculture, and political science.
The recommendations could be a win-win because, as it turns out, the healthiest diet—for reducing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, many cancers, and overall mortality—is also the one that is most environmentally sustainable (that is, it best protects land and other natural resources for future generations).
The gist of the “planetary health diet” is not surprising: It is plant-based, as are so many dietary guidelines around the world. You fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits, and the other half mostly with whole grains and plant sources of protein (including legumes). The diet also allows modest amounts of dairy and fish but limits highly processed foods and added sugars.
What sets it apart from typical dietary guidelines, however, is just how little red meat it has—a mere half ounce a day, on average, which adds up to one (3.5 ounce) hamburger a week, or perhaps one heftysteak a month. For most Americans, in particular, that could take some getting used to, though many, including myself, have already adopted this “flexitarian” lifestyle—and new options in plant-based “meat” are making it easier than ever to go meatless. If everyone on the planet were to adopt this planetary health diet, an estimated 11 million adult deaths a year could be prevented.
To keep the planet healthy, big changes must also be made in how we produce our food, including using less water and agrochemicals, preserving land, bringing back biodiversity in crops, and increasing responsible aquaculture. We must halve food loss and waste as well, the scientists calculated. According to the report, our current global food production system “constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation.”
Without this “great food transformation,” as the Commission calls it, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a severely degraded environment “where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease,” the report warns.
Making it happen
The EAT-Lancet goals are aspirational and would require the coordinated efforts of government, industry, and business on a global scale to develop the technologies needed to produce high-quality food on less land and with less energy consumption, and to make healthy foods more accessible and affordable. Moreover, they are not the only possible solutions—and they have drawn their share of criticism (such as a concern that the diet’s protein requirements are inadequate). But they provide an opportunity to at least move forward the discussion of what needs to be done to reverse the unsustainable trajectory we are on and improve the health and well-being of people all over the world.
You can be part of this “great food transformation,” starting with putting twice as many vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains in your grocery cart and saving the red meat for special occasions—and making sure your food doesn’t go to waste (an upcoming Wellness Letter article will discuss this topic).
For more information about the planetary health diet and to read the full or summary EAT-Lancet report, go to The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.