The Planetary Health Diet: How to save yourself, and earth, with a new food plan

Less meat, less pollution. A new study finds less meat consumption is better for climate change and for you. But is America listening? Or is it still denying climate change while chomping on President Trump's 'hamberders'?

 |  6-minute read |   17-01-2019
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'Watch what you eat' is an adage oft-repeated when one is growing up. It seems now that you have to watch what you eat, not only for yourself — but also for the planet.

A major report on diet and food systems that was commissioned by the Lancet Medical Journal has called for a comprehensive shift in how the world eats. According to the report, our food systems are faulty and are a major contributor to climate change — leaving civilisation in crisis.

The EAT-Lancet Commission was a three-year collaboration between 37 scientific experts from 16 countries — it has called for a dramatic reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy and a sharp increase in plant-based foods.

The commission says food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. And researchers have warned that we can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources.

"The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet. We are currently getting this seriously wrong ... we are in a catastrophic situation. We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country's circumstances... The scientific targets we have devised for a healthy, sustainable diet are an important foundation which will underpin and drive this change,” says Professor Tim Lang, one of the authors.

main_trump013_011719041037.jpgWhat the Haves have: President Donald Trump laid out a White House feast of “great American food” — silver platters heaped high with hamburgers. (Image: Reuters)

The new diet plan — called the 'planetary health diet' — promises to save lives, feed 10 billion people and do all this without causing catastrophic damage to the planet.

The planetary health diet plan consists largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils, with restrained quantities of seafood and poultry.

Red meat, processed meat, added sugars, refined grains and starchy vegetables, however, have been shown the door — but not banished altogether.

The diet allows 14 grams of red meat like beef or lamb a day — roughly the equivalent of an average American McDonalds hamburger once every eight days.

The haves and have-nots

According to the report, the 'haves' (countries with plenty) like the people of North America, eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat — compared to the 'have-nots' (countries with scarcity), like the people in South Asia, who eat half of what is recommended.

The report pointed to a broader problem of disparity — more than 800 million people don’t get enough to eat worldwide and many more “consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases.”

So, what can you eat?

The diet does not deprive you of your essential nutrients needed to survive — it merely eliminates 'wants' as opposed to 'needs'.

The allowance is thus:

- Nuts - 50g a day

- Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes - 75g a day

- Fish - 28g a day

- Eggs - 13g a day (so one and a bit a week)

- Meat - 14g a day of red meat and 29g a day of chicken

- Carbohydrates - whole grains like bread and rice 232g a day and 50g a day of starchy vegetables

- Dairy - 250g - the equivalent of one glass of milk

- Vegetables - 300g and fruit - 200g

- Sugar - 31g

- Oils - 50g

According to this, you'd be able to eat one burger a week, or one large steak a month, a couple of portions of fish a week, with the same amount of chicken.

However, the rest of the protein would need to come from plant-based sources — nuts, beans chickpeas and lentils.

All good for the planet — but will the diet keep you alive?

We don’t know about your taste buds, but this diet will keep you not only alive but also very healthy.

The researchers behind the study say that with almost one billion people are hungry, nearly two billion are eating the wrong food.

“Unhealthy diets account for up to 11 million avoidable deaths per year. The dominant diets of the past 50 years are a major contributor to climate change and are no longer nutritionally optimal,” the report says.

With obesity being a major health concern in most countries, the current diets are pushing the planet beyond its natural boundaries while causing ill-health and early death, say the researchers. The new diet consists of around 35 per cent of calories obtained from whole grains and tubers, and protein mostly derived from plants.

main_somalian-women_011719041847.jpgWhat the Have Nots don't have: Somali women wait for food at a camp in Mogadishu. (Image: Reuters)

According to Professor Johan Rockstrom from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany — who co-led the commission — a sustainable system that could deliver healthy diets for a growing and wealthier world population required "nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution". He says, “Our definition of sustainable food production requires that we use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions. There is no silver bullet for combating harmful food production practices, but by defining and quantifying a safe operating space for food systems, diets can be identified that will nurture human health and support environmental sustainability."

As a policy to eliminate and restrict food choice, the report recommends new taxes and charges, rationing, and in extreme cases — withdrawing products from sale.

However, the report clarified that it was not trying to dictate choices on what to eat or how to eat. It merely laid out global targets for what constitutes a healthy diet, based on an average intake of 2,500 calories a day. 

So do eat wise and eat right — for yourself and the planet.

Also read: I don't believe you: Donald Trump, world's biggest climate change denier


Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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