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A diet fit for 10 billion
The win win diet that’s healthy for the body and healthy for the planet, as the population heads towards 10 billion people
This January, the respected scientific journal The Lancet published a new set of guidelines for what a healthy diet looks like. But this time it’s not just about getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy and avoid disease, it’s about looking after the planet too.
The dual problem of climate change and poor nutrition
By 2050, the population is expected to reach 10 billion people. Producing enough food is already putting a huge strain on the environment, and providing for an extra 2 billion people using current methods is far from sustainable. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the single biggest cause of environmental change.
Despite food production keeping up with the growing population in terms of calories, diets are nutritionally poor in many parts of the world. 820 million people still have too little – either in quality or quantity, leading to malnutrition, obesity and diseases that come with them.
The planet-friendly diet to feed the world
Experts from around the world, working in nutrition, sustainability, and politics, have teamed up to produce the new recommended diet which supplies all the nutrients we need, with clear guidelines and boundaries for how these can be produced sustainably.
The aim is for cultures around the world to adopt win win diets that are healthy for the planet and the body, and avoid lose lose diets, which are harmful to both.
What does the win win diet look like?
The planet-friendly diet is mostly plant based with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. It’s not strictly vegetarian or vegan, but only includes small amount of meat, dairy and poultry – earning the nick name ‘flexitarian’.
This is what the flexitarian diet looks like per day:
* Wholegrains such as rice, wheat and corn: 232g
* Tubers or starchy foods: 50g
* Vegetables 300g
* Fruit 200g
* Whole milk and produce made from it, like cheese 250g - around a glass
* Nuts 50g
* Beef, lamb and pork 14g
* Chicken and other poultry 29g
* Eggs 13g
* Fish 28g
* Legumes including beans, peas, lentils and soy foods 75g
* Oils 50g
* Added sugars 31g
This works out as about one steak a month, 2 portions of fish per week and 2 portions of chicken, 2 eggs per week, and lots of fruit and veg, but less starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Why is this diet good for you?
The diet is designed to meet all our needs for vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and energy, and prevent diseases like heart disease. It’s based around 2500kcal, which is enough energy for a typical 70kg 30yr old man, or active 60kg woman.
The large amounts and variety of fruit, veg, nuts and legumes provide vitamins, minerals and potassium, which is good for lowering blood pressure, as well as calcium which doesn’t only exist in dairy foods.
The low amount of meat also avoids the saturated fat and cancer-causing chemicals which can be found in many meat products.
Protein is supplied by the nuts and legumes such as beans and peas, as well as the small amounts found naturally in most foods.
The whole grains provide energy and keep you full, while avoiding the rise in blood sugar you see with refined grains like white bread and the simple carbohydrates found in potatoes.
There’s very little or no sugar, avoiding empty calories, weight gain and tooth decay.
How will the new diet help the environment?
Food production at the moment is one of the main causes of environmental damage. It adds to:
- climate change and rising sea levels due in part to gas emissions from farming
- loss of biodiversity, with deforestation and growing large quantities of a small number of crops, leading to loss of habitats and animals becoming extinct
- freshwater use, 70% of all water withdrawals are used for irrigation, largely for crops to feed animals
- interference with nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
- chemical pollution, for example with fertiliser.
The food production systems discussed aims to address these complex issues as much as possible. The focus is on food production that uses carbon rather than produces it - moving to plant-based crops with far less reliance on farming animals and the crops and water they require.
The recommendations were made to meet two major global agendas for health and sustainability:
- The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to end poverty, hunger and malnutrition and protect the planet.
- The Paris Agreement, which is focused on climate change and its effect on human health, limiting global warming to well below 2°C, aiming for 1·5°C.
Is adopting the diet possible?
Adopting the diet will require a massive shift in attitudes and food production practices, for individuals, governments and all those working in the food supply chain. The authors call it the Great Food Transformation – changes must be made quickly, with unprecedented commitment and collaboration around the world.
But with roots in traditional diets and cultures, and flexibility for variations around the world, the authors believe it can be done. Some cultures are already eating such a diet. The traditional Mediterranean diet is considered among the healthiest in the world and parts of India and Mexico consume largely plant based foods with a range of vegetables and beans, with meat only on special occasions.
What about salt?
Katharine Jenner, CEO of Blood Pressure UK, explains:
“The recommended diet doesn’t discuss salt, which leads to raised blood pressure, the leading cause of strokes and a major cause of disability worldwide. But the paper does acknowledge that adding salt and preservatives significantly affects the nutritional quality of food.
“In terms of health, this diet would provide everything a healthy person needs, and we lend our full support to any changes that will prevent unnecessary heart disease and strokes while protecting the planet for generations to come.”
The paper was released during January, while many people were trying out Veganuary, or vegan January, which is exactly what is sounds like - going vegan in the name of animal welfare and climate change. Our CEO Katharine has been doing Veganuary – see how she found it.
The BBC has more information on what you can eat, and includes a tool to look at how different food choices affect the environment.
Read the full paper in The Lancet. It’s available for free, you just need to register.
There’ll be more on the theme of eating healthily for yourself and for the planet in this Summer’s Positive Pressure magazine. Become a member to get your copy.