Eye on…eating for planetary health

Author: Philippa Simmonds

The much anticipated EAT-Lancet commission was published on Thursday 17th January and has been making headlines around the world ever since. As described in our recent interview with Dr Sandro Demaio, the commission sets out a global reference diet that aims to fight both disease and climate change, while supporting the projected global population of 10 billion by 2050.

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Photo courtesy of World Obesity Federation 

The study has some bold recommendations. Steak-lovers will be disappointed to find yet another scientific paper laying out the negative health and environmental effects of meat consumption. Vegans will be delighted to find their vegetable, lentil, and soy-rich diets vindicated (although perhaps less so for those of us surviving on vegan pizza and Oreos). While the reference diet does incorporate some meat eating, it is in the order of one beef burger a week (for red meat) and a couple portions a week for chicken and fish. This is to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer and cardiovascular disease, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to animal agriculture.

However, in the West even vegans will need to make significant changes if the commission’s utopian vision of a “Great Food Transformation” is to be realised. The reference diet is consistent with a number of traditional (read: pre-colonial) diets around the world such as those found in Mexico and India. However, in the West we will have to eat a lot more nuts and seeds, as well as lentils and legumes. In North America, the amount of vegetables people eat needs to double. Meanwhile, the commission advocates for people in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is more often limited access to protein-rich foods, to eat more meat to combat undernutrition. Globally, key aims are to reduce food waste and address the massive inequalities that cause some to go hungry while others have plenty.

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Photo courtesy of Oxford Martin School

The EAT-Lancet commission has been praised widely, with some calling it a timely call to arms. Of course, the backlash has also begun. In an article published in Psychology Today, Georgia Ede argues that the study over-relies on epidemiological data rather than clinical trials, the former of which are the subject of controversy in the nutrition world due to their use of self-reported data. She therefore posits that eating more animal protein is better for human health. Whichever side of the nutrition debate you fall on, this argument fails to consider the “planetary health” component of the EAT-Lancet commission. Animal agriculture is a leading clause of climate change, biodiversity loss, and antimicrobial resistance. Extreme weather events, droughts, food shortages, and a lack of effective antibiotics all pose major existential threats to human health and lives, hence why the systemic approach of the commission is so necessary.

However, a potential issue with the commission’s recommendations is the (perhaps unavoidable) use of the word “diet”, which has connotations of deprivation and shame in many cultures thanks to the industry of the same name. This framing may overemphasise consumer responsibility, when in reality strong leadership from policymakers will be needed to drive real change. In the UK this is becoming increasingly apparent, as millions of people with low incomes cannot afford healthy foods that meet the government’s own dietary recommendations. The commission recommends policy measures such as increased taxes on meat with concurrent subsidies for healthier foods; ideas that are slowly entering the UK climate change discourse.

Overall, the EAT-Lancet commission presents an urgent call to action for all sectors of society. Combating NCDs and climate change will require systemic shifts that affect all aspects of our daily lives; from how we produce energy, to what we eat, to how we travel. Hopefully this research will be a turning point in the movement towards a more equitable food system for our living planet.


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