New Dietary Guidelines Will Save People and the Planet, Scientists Argue

A team of international health scientists and climate researchers have proposed a solution to the most pressing problem of our time:

How do we feed a growing population, prevent food-related disease, and save the planet?

The EAT-Lancet Commission argues that "feeding a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production, and reducing food waste."

As of January 2019, there are 7.7 billion people on the planet and feeding everyone a healthy and sustainable diet is still a goal that requires significant change in the global food system and within our own homes. For a small slice of context, right now, three billion people are malnourished with one billion currently living in hunger and two billion consuming a gross excess of "wrong" foods. These statistics are only set to get worse with time—granted we don't get our act together ASAP.

Our current global food system is also undeniably "driving climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution due to over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, and unsustainable changes in water and land use," reports the commission.

The significant change we need begins with this newly proposed "planetary health diet."

What is the "planetary health diet?"

At its core, the new planetary health diet proposes a 50% global reduction in red meat and sugar consumption and a 50% global consumption increase in nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

In your own home, this would look like 35% of your calories coming from whole grains and tubers, protein mainly from plants, and including approximately 1 tablespoon of red meat per day, and 2 cups per day of vegetables and fruits.

Now, obviously no one is going to measure out a tablespoon of red meat per day, so it's best to consider what this looks like from a weekly intake rather than daily. Each week, you could eat 3.5 ounces of red meat like beef or lamb. The same recommendation applies to pork as well. It's a drastic cut for many, but I think it's interesting to note the scientists didn't say we shouldn't eat meat, just that we need to seriously reduce current consumption. In North America, for example, we're eating on average 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat.

As for the weekly guidelines for other animal products, the commission recommends limiting consumption to approximately 1.5 eggs per week, 7 ounces of poultry, 7 ounces of fish, and just under 7 cups of dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt. However, the report seems to suggest those sources of dairy should be fat-free as they don't allow any grams for dairy fat. Rather, they recommend our fat intake comes primarily from unsaturated sources like those found in olive oil.

For most households, following these new planetary health guidelines requires major menu changes, so is it reasonable to suggest such drastic alterations to our diets? Well, yes.

Commission author Professor Tim Lang argues:

"People might warn of unintended consequences or argue that the case for action is premature, however, the evidence is sufficient and strong enough to warrant action, and any delay will increase the likelihood of not achieving crucial health and climate goals."

What are some strategies for success?

The commission says that our health and the planet depends on a new global agriculture revolution, and they've given us a roadmap to success. Now, it's up to policymakers and everyday homemakers like you and me to make some quick pivots for all our futures.

In terms of top-down change, the commission includes five strategies for achieving this food system overhaul:

  • encouraging and incentivizing people to eat healthier

  • refocusing global agriculture production from monocrops to varied nutrient-rich crops

  • intensifying agriculture sustainably

  • implementing stricter policies around the governing of oceans and lands

  • significantly reducing food waste

What can you do at home?

Now, when it comes down to what happens within your own home, you're still in control. You have the purchasing and decision-making powers to be a positive part of this non-negotiable change.

Here are some sensible strategies:

  • incorporate more plant-based proteins like beans and nuts

  • when you do eat meat, following the Eat Smart guide from the Environmental Working Group

  • look for local, organic, and fair-trade options

  • buy groceries in smaller batches and cook smaller portions to prevent food waste

  • freeze leftovers to cut down on food waste

Remember, there is more to every story than what's often presented and it's up to us to continue searching for the most sustainable and healthy options in our own areas.

Cover image credit: Pexels

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