In Depth

What is the planetary health diet?

Scientists say their new eating plan could prevent millions of deaths each year while protecting environment

Scientists have created a new global eating plan that promises to save countless lives and ensure food for up to ten billion people while preventing irreparable damage to the environment.

The “planetary health diet”, outlined in a paper in The Lancet, is largely plant-based and “allows an average of 2,500 calories a day”, reports The Guardian.

“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,” said study co-author Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University.

Set to be presented to policymakers in 40 cities worldwide, the new plan would see global average consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar cut by 50%, while the amount of nuts, fruits and vegetables that we eat would double.

The BBC reports that the findings are the result of two years of research by 37 experts from fields ranging “from farming to climate change to nutrition”, who were brought together as part of the EAT-Lancet Commission, an initiative on nutrition led by the medical journal.

The scientists say that if the world followed the planetary health diet, more than 11 million premature deaths could be prevented each year, while greenhouse gas emissions would also be cut.

“Humanity now poses a threat to the stability of the planet,” said report co-author Professor Johan Rockstrom of Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Centre. “[This requires] nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”

What do you eat on the diet?

The diet involves getting 35% of your total calories from whole grains; eating 500g of vegetables and fruits daily; and consuming protein almost entirely derived from plants rather than animals, with just 14g of red meat each day.

Fish would be limited to 28g a day, and poultry to 29g - “equivalent to one-and-a-half chicken nuggets”, notes the London Evening Standard. The diet also allows for only 1.5 eggs a week, and 250g of dairy a day - about one glass of milk.

“The numbers for red meat sound small to a lot of people in the UK or US,” said Harvard University professor of nutrition Walter Willett, who worked on the project.

“But they don’t sound small to the very large part of the world’s population that already consumes about that much or even less. It is very much in line with traditional diets.” 

The researchers add that their diet has much in common with other healthy eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet

Why is it necessary?

The authors warn that a global change in diet and food production is vital, with three billion people worldwide suffering from malnutrition, and food production far outstripping environmental targets, which has knock-on effects on climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Meanwhile, the world’s population on course to reach ten billion people by 2050 - and that growth, combined with our current diet and food production habits, will “exacerbate risks to people and planet”, they say.

“More than 800 million people have insufficient food, while many more consume an unhealthy diet that contributes to premature death and disease,” said Willett. “If we can’t quite make it, it’s better to try and get as close as we can.” 

What would different nations need to change?

The new diet would mean profound changes globally. People in North America “eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat, while people in South Asia eat only half the amount suggested by the planetary diet”, says Reuters.

And meeting the targets for starchy vegetables such as potatoes and cassava would mean a rethink in sub-Saharan Africa, “where people on average eat 7.5 times the suggested amount”, the news agency adds.

Will people adopt the diet?

“Humanity has never attempted to change the food system at this scale and this speed," said Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

“Whether it’s a fantasy or not, a fantasy doesn’t have to be bad... it’s time to dream of a good world,” she adds.

However, incentives may also be required. Taxes on red meat “are one of the many options the researchers say may be necessary to persuade us to switch diets”, reports the BBC.

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