Scientists call for plant-focused diet to save our planet

The first ever ‘planetary’ health diet is designed to avoid potentially catastrophic damage to the planet. It calls for major reductions in red meat and sugar consumption.

If the world is to feed a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet, eating habits must be fundamentally transformed. More specifically, red meat and sugar consumption must decrease by about 50 per cent, while the consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes such as lentils and beans must double.

These are some of the guidelines of the first ever ‘planetary’ health diet, published by a global team of scientists in The Lancet yesterday.

The daily dietary pattern of the health diet consists of approximately 35 per cent of calories as whole grains and tubers, protein sources mainly from plants – but allowing around 14 grams of red meat per day – and 500 grams per day of vegetables and fruits.

The planetary health diet was designed by 37 experts from 16 countries with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and political governance. Unlike health diets to date, this one is based on scientific targets that places healthy food consumption within the boundaries of our planet for food production, such as those for climate change, biodiversity loss, land and freshwater use, as well as nutrient cycles.

In addition to protecting our environment, this diet is also expected to save lives: some 11 million premature deaths per year caused by unhealthy diets could be avoided by shifting towards this healthier diet. What’s more, it would help feed the approximately 3 billion people who are currently malnourished.

“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,” says one of the authors, Professor Tim Lang of City, University of London. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before in ways appropriate to each country’s circumstances.”

While the shift to the planetary health diet will require significant change, particularly in the west where diets are high in sugar, refined starches, meat and dairy and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fish, the scientists insist that the targets are within reach.

“Designing and operationalizing sustainable food systems that can deliver healthy diets for a growing and wealthier world population presents a formidable challenge. Nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution,” says Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“The good news is that it is not only doable, we have increasing evidence that it can be achieved through sustainable intensification that benefits both farmer, consumer and planet.”

Image credit: Roman Davayposmotrim via Unsplash

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