In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission released a report about sustainable food systems which gained widespread media attention. Maeve Hanan, consultant dietitian and health writer, shares her thoughts on the what’s been coined the planetary health diet.
What is the planetary health diet?
This EAT-Lancet report summarised what needs to happen on a global scale in order to be able to safely feed our expanding population, which is estimated to reach about 10 billion by 2050. It took over 2 years to create and involved 37 people — including experts in health, nutrition, food systems, environmental sustainability, economics, and politics.
The main points from the report are to:
- have at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day — excluding potatoes which are limited to one small portion per day
- include plenty of whole grains — but limit intake of refined carbohydrates like white bread, white pasta, and sugar
- choose plant-based proteins more often than meat, poultry, and eggs
- limit red meat to roughly one portion per week and poultry to two to three portions per week
- include up to 2 portions of fish per week or include other sources of omega-3s in your diet
- limit dairy intake to one to two portions per day
- include roughly a handful of nuts and 2-3 tablespoons of legumes like beans, peas, and lentils per day
- choose mainly unsaturated fat like olive oil and limit your intake of saturated fat like butter, coconut oil, and fat from meat
Benefits of the planetary health diet
It’s reassuring to see that the nutritional advice from this report is balanced overall and encourages more plant-based foods — rather than restricting all animal-based products.
The report also highlights that the guidelines aren’t intended to be an exact blueprint to follow — “local interpretation and adaptation of the universally-applicable planetary health diet is necessary and should reflect the culture, geography and demography of the population and individuals”. This is important, as for a diet to be truly sustainable it needs to be culturally acceptable, fair, affordable, nutritious, and accessible. As well as having a low environmental impact.
Beyond diet, this report also highlights the need for improvements in agriculture, food production, conservation policies, and reducing food waste. In order to achieve the ‘great food transformation’ that our planet needs, many of these initiatives will require a lot of cooperation between different nations and the food industry.
Downsides of the planetary health diet
The EAT-Lancet report didn’t set any targets related to food poverty, a vital piece of the sustainable puzzle. A diet can’t be truly sustainable if it isn’t accessible. Unfortunately, the current ‘planetary health diet’ simply isn’t realistic for many people — as it requires cooking skills, equipment, storage space, time, planning, and access to healthy ingredients.
It’s great to see sustainable eating getting so much attention. And this report highlights a number of vital issues related to improving the sustainability of food systems.
In terms of practical dietary changes, the main message is to move towards a more plant-based diet — this reflects healthy eating guidelines across the world. But as we work towards this hugely important goal, it’s crucial that sustainable eating initiatives strive to be as fair and inclusive as possible.