The perfect diet for people and planet

Marloes Humbeeck
02 April 2019
What we eat has a huge impact on both our health and that of our planet. That is why 39 scientists sought a scientific consensus on what exactly constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet. Their conclusion was published in the renowned scientific journal The Lancet.

In total, it took the researchers three years to put together the 'ideal diet for the planet and its growing population'. The study was conducted by 37 experts from 16 different countries and from various research fields: health, agriculture, political sciences, ... They concluded that if we all follow the diet they propose, we will be able to feed all people on the planet in a healthy and sustainable way by 2050.

Current diet is untenable

 

Today, more than 820 million people worldwide are starving. Moreover, from all human activities, the food industry is the one that exerts the highest pressure on our planet. And then to think that the world’s population will only continue to grow: by 2050, there will be ten billion people on the earth, all of whom will need a nutritious diet.

We need an outright revolution that changes the global food system like never before.

Tim Lang

'The food we eat and the way we produce it determine people’s health and that of our planet,' says British professor Tim Lang, one of the study’s leaders. We continue to waste food, eat large amounts of meat, and import fruit and vegetables from distant countries. That is no longer viable. ‘We need an outright revolution that changes the global food system like never before,' says Lang.

Major food transformation

 

According to the study, this revolution should take the form of a major food transformation to which all players in the food chain - producers, traders, sellers and consumers - must contribute.

For example, food production must focus on growing crops that require less land and resources and are better for health, while the meat industry will have to shrink considerably. Various studies have shown that a reduction in red meat consumption (beef, porc, lamb and goat meat), which we see in traditional Mediterranean diets, reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes and increases life expectancy. On top of that, vegetables, grains and fruits have a much smaller impact on the environment (see graph), since they require far less land and water than what is needed for red meat production.

Chart that represents the impact that meat, fish, vegetables and milk products have on the environment.

Nowadays, we produce large quantities of the same crops, which often serve as cattle feed. Instead, we should focus on diverse products that are more nutritious. The emphasis should again be on vegetables, fruits and nuts, because they require less land and are better for our health.

The study also underlines the importance of the oceans, which should be managed efficiently to counteract negative impact on ocean life. Fish provides approximately 3.1 billion people with 20 percent of their daily food intake. Overfishing and water pollution must therefore be actively combated.

Finally, we must fight food waste. In Europe alone, we waste 8.8 million tonnes of food every year, while we need huge amounts of water and energy to produce that food. On a planet of more than seven billion people, we should urgently stop throwing away perfectly usable food. To that end, steps must be taken at an international, national and individual level.

 

Adapting your diet

 

What can you as an individual do to help the researchers achieve their goal? Well, you will have to radically adjust your diet. The study recommends to reduce red meat and sugar consumption by 50 percent, whereas the consumption of nuts, legumes, vegetables and fruit should be doubled compared to the current global average. In fact, that does not even mean that people need meat and fish, they can perfectly do without.

Still, these guidelines vary greatly depending on the region. For example, on average, North Americans eat 6.5 times the amount of meat recommended in the study every day, while South Asians consume only half as much meat as the recommended daily amount. In Sub-Saharan Africa, people eat 7.5 times the recommended amount of starchy vegetables, such as rice.

It is the first time that such a large scale consensus has been reached by so many diverse scientists from all over the world.

This diet largely corresponds to the new nutritional triangle the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living proposed in 2017. The Lancet study, however, pays even more attention to the sustainable aspect of the diet. Moreover, this is the first time that such a large scale consensus has been reached by so many diverse scientists from all over the world.

The transformation to a healthier diet based on sustainable agriculture is crucial to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, according to Professor Walter Willett, the diet is also pleasant, flexible and varied: 'This is not a restrictive diet, we are talking about a way of eating that can both be healthy and tasty. There are thousands of ways to create a meal. Definitely worth a try!'

What does the diet look like?

 

Based on a reference intake of 2,500 kcal per day

 

Carbohydrates: 232 grams per day of cereal products (wheat, rice, cereals...) and 50 grams per day of tuber/starchy vegetables.

Vegetables: 300 grams per day

Fruit: 200 grams per day

Dairy: 250 grams (corresponds to one glass of milk per day)

Meat: 14 grams of red meat per day

Poultry: 29 grams per day

Eggs: 13 grams per day (corresponds to about one egg per week)

Fish: 28 grams per day

Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes: 75 grams per day

Nuts: 50 grams per day

Diet
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