Eating sustainably for the planet and for your health
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO EAT SUSTAINABLY AND HEALTHILY?
As 2019 draws to a close, the nation has an increasing awareness of how our actions affect the eco-system and how this will impact future generations. Environmental protests worldwide, increasing the use of recycled plastic and the rise of metal straws are only a tiny fraction of the ways people are becoming more informed and proactive in order to safe keep our world. Whether this is to tackle climate change, to reduce water waste, or ensure that we have enough food for the growing population, these are all positive steps for change.
One of the ways many people are looking to promote sustainability is in their diets. However, what is sustainability? There are three generally accepted definitions. These are from the United Nations, the International Union for conservation for nature, and scientist Paul Hawken, and are as follows:
- Sustainability ensures that the actions we take to meet our needs now (like cotton farming for jumpers) and will not compromise the needs of the future generations (future generations will still be able to cotton farm to the same degree).
- It improves and maintains the quality of human life for all while still supporting the earth’s eco-system (like still eating red meat, but not so much that the trees we cut down for farming space cannot be replanted at an equal rate).
- It balances the currently unbalanced and disruptive relationship humans have with the current eco-system (like switching from burning fossil fuels to using solar panels to produce energy while avoiding excessive greenhouse gas emission).
Diet sustainability is a large aspect of the current environmental movement. 820 million people currently do not have sufficient food, and many have low-quality diets, which have drastic impacts on their health. Current food production practices accelerating the rate of breakdown of the eco-system. Further, there is evidence that human health is improved with increased environmental sustainability. Sustainable eating would, therefore, ensure that people worldwide have access to good healthy food, whilst safekeeping our environment from further destruction.
Hence, how can one eat both sustainably and healthily?
The EAT-Lancet Commission 2 set out guidelines for 2019 on eating healthily and sustainably, aiming to guide the population to achieve and maintain healthy diet practices and enable sustainability for the predicted 10 billion people of the world by 2050. The consensus for achieving this goal is for people to develop a diet that is rich in plant-based foods, with fewer animal source foods (so no, this does not mean you have to go vegan). They defined scientific targets to allow for both healthy eating and sustainability in food production to take place. The first target is based on the content of the food we eat, and how much of it should be consumed. The schematic below displays this guideline.
It shows that half the plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits, while the other half, on a caloric basis, should be split between whole grains, plant protein sources such as legumes and nuts, unsaturated plant oils, and other dietary components. This way of eating also provides personal health benefits – one study showed that it reduced the risk of another heart attack, in those who have had one, over and beyond the Mediterranean diet, with a 99% reduction over four years to be exact. Another study showed that it significantly reduced sugar levels in diabetics, above that of traditional diabetes-recommended diet.
Achieving this by 2050 will require a massive planetary shift in diet. As you can see from the figure below, globally, we would have to double our consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and more than halve our consumption of red meat and added sugars.
However, of course, depending on where a person lives in the world, different foods are available, and many populations suffer from undernutrition. Hence, the goal of trying to eat a planetary healthy diet may not always realistic. Therefore, where the food is accessible, EAT-Lancet Commission’s diet should be aimed for. If all the people of the Earth ate in this way, it is predicted that 11 million deaths per year would be prevented, hence highlighting the enormous health benefits of this diet.
It is important to understand how this links to sustainable food production and hence will reduce the environmental impact of farming. The main 6 categories that envelop the ecological effects of food production include climate change from greenhouse gas emissions, crop-land use for farming, freshwater use, nitrogen use, phosphorous use, and extinction rate leading to the biodiversity of animal and plant loss in the ecosystem. They have set out targets for each of these that will ensure that by 2050, there is enough healthy food for the population at the time without destroying the planet. Reaching them is a separate issue. It will require: -
- A shift in the diet as stated previously
- Food waste will have to halve
- Food production will essentially need to become more efficient to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous use, increase the yield of crops (aka fewer crop losses), produce food in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and farm in areas that minimises impacts on biodiversity.
Understandably, most people are not civil servants or farmers, so the last two issues do not relate to the general population. However, the first applies to all people. Eating a planetary sustainable diet will not only improve your health but also have a massive impact on the 6 categories that harm our planet. It remains the first of EAT-Lancet’s strategies. There are four other strategies listed that do not involve how we eat in our daily lives. However, advocating for, or becoming involved in ensuring they are followed through will also promote global change and have a great impact on the environment. These include:
1. Agricultural practices prioritising high quality, healthy food production
2. Increasing high-quality food output in food production, thereby increasing food yield
3. Correctly governing and managing the lands and oceans used for farming and
4. Halving food losses and waste, in line with the UN Sustainable Developmental Goals.
Eating sustainably and healthily can be confusing, as there is a lot of information shared with not always the best sources. Keeping it simple and following the EAT-Lancet Commission’s guidelines, while also understanding why you are doing it, are sure to help.
Purpose Print Summary
· We challenge traditional diet advice: Half the plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits, while the other half, on a caloric basis, should be split between whole grains, plant protein sources such as legumes and nuts, unsaturated plant oils, and other dietary components
· Aim to double consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, and more than halve consumption of red meat and added sugars
· This will enable food sustainability for the predicted 10 billion people of the world by 2050
· It will also help people make better choices for their bodies – studies show that a whole food plant-based diets reduce glucose levels in diabetics and the risk of another heart attack in those who have already had one.
Febi Sidiku, Purpose Print Team
3. Esselstyn CB, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD? J Fam Pract. 2014;63(7):356-364b.
4. Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, et al. A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2006;29(8):1777-1783
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