If I told you there was a diet that was optimal for your health and the environment would you be interested?
The food you eat is the single most important aspect to optimize your health and environmental sustainability. It turns out, what’s good for our bodies is good for our planet. As our diets have changed, morbidity and mortality rates have increased around the world. Diseases and deaths related to unhealthy eating pose a greater risk than unsafe sex, alcohol, and tobacco use combined (1). If we continue to do things the way we do them today our planet is set for severe degradation, as the effect of climate change increases.
A landmark, evidence-based report was published by EAT- Lancet. The report is titled Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. As someone with their Masters Degree in Sustainable and Resilient Food Systems this is super exciting. Although much of the information is not new this report is the most comprehensive, also offering specific amounts and advice for exactly what the diet would include and it’s impact on our Earth.
The food system is a complex web of interconnected parts including agriculture, water, governmental policies, businesses and consumers. The report takes most of these facts into account to create targets for healthy diets that will result in sustainable food production. It breaks the targets down to 5 strategies to accomplishing this immense challenge to feed 10 billion people by 2050 (the anticipated population based on growth) in a healthy way. One of the best things about the outlined diet, is that it can be adapted to accompany taste preferences and recipes from cultures all over the world.
The report states that following this diet can cut down on premature deaths from unhealthy diets by 19-23% or about 11 million deaths per year.
The diet is mostly plant-based. You can still eat meat, but less is healthier. Compared to the current average American diet, adapting to this diet would include reducing meat consumption by over 50% and increasing fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, nuts and legumes by over 100%. It sounds drastic, but so are the health benefits. Vegetarian diets (including vegan, pescatarian, vegetarian, and semi-vegetarian) have 12% lower risk of overall death and lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
If you are interested in changing to a more plant-based diet you can sign-up for the 21-day reset where you will learn all sorts of recipes, tips, and information to follow a diet that is very similar to the one outlined here.
Click here for a downloadable chart of protein content of common foods.
1 oz is 28 g, 3 oz meat = the size of a deck of card ~22-28 g of protein
That is a smaller burger, chicken breast or steak than we are used to, but you can add mushrooms into your burger to make it bigger or think of not eating it every day and 1-2 days per week you can have meat the size you prefer.
To learn more about protein and where you can get it, click here.
Fat is found in nuts, oils, legumes, animal products, and some vegetables (think avocados and olives). The diet suggests eating mostly plant-based unsaturated fats and oils. Avoiding palm-oil is also important as it is a saturated fat and contributes to deforestation in the rainforest.
For 50 g/day fat:
Carbohydrates should be whole grains. Yes, carbohydrates can be unhealthy, but like any food group you just have to choose the healthy, nutrient rich type and limit the unhealthy type, like sugar and refined grain products. Stick to minimally processed grains and whole foods like fruits and legumes, limiting packaged and sugary foods.
Minimally processed grains include whole wheat flour, brown, red or black rice, quinoa, buckwheat, farro, adlai, sorghum, fruits and vegetables.
To learn more about carbohydrates click here. For 230 g/day of carbohydrates:
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with a variety of colors. Different colors of produce are associated with different vitamins and minerals so you will be getting a balanced diet with a variety of nutrients and no need to supplement with a multivitamin.
300 g per day of vegetables is about 4 servings and 200 g/day of fruit is about 2 servings.
The report also explains more than just diet recommendations, highlighting various changes that need to happen in our food system. There are 5 strategies total, the first is shifting to the healthier diet that was highlighted. Here are the other 4 and what you can do about it as a consumer.
This might seem out of your hands but there are small things we can do. Agriculture is largely run by subsidies and government regulations that support large farms and growing commodity crops like wheat and corn. You can write letters to your local and national congress people to support small farmers and make changes to the farming regulation.
In addition, we can play our part by buying healthy fruit and vegetables, the shifting demand will pressure suppliers to change. Try a variety of foods, whether all new foods or just different type. Biodiversity is important and one consequence of large mono-cropped farms, is we are losing heirloom varieties of foods. There are more than 14,000 edible plant species, and only 3 (rice, wheat, and corn) contribute to 60% of the calories consumed by people worldwide. By choosing other foods, we as consumers will be driving the demand for more than just these 3 types of foods.
This includes improvements in fertilizer and water use as well as better use of nitrogen and phosphorus. Although at first it might sound like something we have no control over, again it’s about what we choose to buy.
Supporting your local farmers by attending farmers markets or signing up for CSA boxes, buying sustainably-raised meats, or finding permaculture farms in your area will be helpful. Buying organic produce when available and heirloom varieties of produce will also help to reduce the amount of fertilizers used.
In other words, we need to stop destroying forests and natural eco-systems to make room for agriculture. Habitat loss to make room for food production is the greatest driver of biodiversity loss. The research based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature claims 80% of extinction threats to mammals and birds are due to agriculture. Losses includes fisheries and insects, both important parts of a healthy food chain and ecosystem.
Besides buying less fish also buying sustainably caught fish is important. You can click here for a sustainable seafood guide.
In high income countries, 40% of food lost and wasted happens at the consumer and retail level. You can do your part by:
Yes, cattle is not all bad. If we raise meat in a sustainable way we can mitigate the environmental impacts. The fact is that most of our cattle is not raised in that way. If we, and the growing global population, continue our current consumption trends, it is not possible to be sustainable, as evidenced by increasing deforestation for cattle land.
Most of our meat comes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFO), defined by the USDA as farms that have over 1,000 animals being raised in confined areas. These farms contribute to methane gas being released as well as land being cleared to make room for the animals.
Animals can be raised on a biodynamic farm in which the cattle, pigs, and chickens can be raised symbiotically together with the environment. This mitigates environmental degradation because the manure can act as fertilizer and the animals can eat the grass and food waste. This type of meat is often more expensive but if you are eating less meat in general you’re still getting good value in food that is better for you and the environment.
According to the U.S. Environmental Agency only 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases are from agriculture and even less from animals. The thing that is left out of that assessment is deforestation and land clearing that is happening around the world to make room for cattle and grain farming that is used to feed the cattle. It also does not account for all of the transportation, fuel, and resources used to process the meat we are eating.
It is also only taking into account the U.S. agriculture sector. We need to take into account the meat that is raised out the country and being imported and the effects that it is is having on their countries’ land. After all, at the end of the day we are one planet, if we all don’t make radical changes we will all be effected by the detrimental effects of climate change.
Do a lot of people lose weight following some more meat heavy diets like Paleo? Yes, absolutely. That does not necessarily mean they are healthier for us though. The research done in the study takes into account many extensive studies and the research strongly supports a balanced diet including whole-grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes. We can eat plenty of protein without having to rely on meat as our main source.
It will take work, and it will take government action to really encourage everyone to make these changes. It can start with you though. The diet calls for a drastic changes in the way we eat. This might sound far reaching but history has shown us it is possible to make changes based on research and regulations. For example, smoking rates have decreased drastically after realizing the negative health impacts.
It’s not about being perfect, it is about being better. Everyone can start making changes today, even if that means going plant-based once per week, it is better than nothing at all.
The USDA recommends we eat about 1200 mg/day of calcium. Alternatively, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 500 mg/day finding that regions with low dairy intake actually have LESS incidence of fractures than more dairy. A glass of milk (8 oz) has 312 mg of calcium. Leafy greens have 60-75 mg per 1/2 cup. So even if you do not drink milk you can still get your calcium from other food sources.
The US diary industry has a huge lobby group with substantial amounts of money that has put a lot into marketing milk and dairy products. Yes, dairy is a good source of calcium but it is not the only source of calcium.
If you made it all the way to the end, thank you! I hope you feel encouraged and inspired.