Planetary Health Diet: Urgent Need to Eat Less Meat

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The Planetary Health Diet

Have you been hearing the dire predictions about the future of our world? I know many people who feel helpless in the face of it. But there is at least one thing you can control: your diet. Switching to the Planetary Health Diet is a choice we can all make for ourselves and each other.

In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission of Food, Planet, Health released a report called the “planetary health diet” where URGENT global dietary changes were recommended.

Thirty prominent scientists deliberated for three years before releasing their recommendations in the world’s most prestigious journal, The Lancet.1,2

The food supply as it exists today is not able to feed the 7.5 billion people who currently inhabit the earth. There are currently 820 million people not sufficiently fed and there are no plans to feed the 2.5 billion more people who will populate the earth by 2050.1,2

“Providing a growing global population with healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an immediate challenge. Although global food production of calories has kept pace with population growth, more than 820 million people have insufficient food and many more consume low-quality diets that cause micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to a substantial rise in the incidence of diet-related obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than does unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. Because much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.”1

According to Harvard professor and study co-chair Walter Willett, there is need for concern and a drastic dietary shift. Here are some of the highlights:6

  1. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizers is creating oxygen-depleted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.
  2. Clearing land to grow food for animals is destroying forests and pasturelands, leading to an unprecedented rate of species extinction.
  3. Currently, 70% of the world’s water is used to grow food and there are serious worldwide water shortages now.
  4. Methane gas from cattle lingers as a greenhouse gas 25 times longer than carbon dioxide. Cows are ruminants and produce a significant amount of gas, burping, and flatulence—all methane gas. 
  5. Cows take 1.5 years for grain-fed and 2.5 for grass-fed to reach market. The longer they’re alive, the more carbon dioxide they will breathe out and methane gas they will produce.
  6. Chickens reach market in six weeks and pigs six months, making chicken and pigs a better animal protein choice.
  7. 45% of the world’s grain feeds livestock.
  8. 35% of grain produces ethanol to fuel cars. 
  9. 15% of grain is used for high fructose corn syrup.
  10. 10% of grain feeds humans. 
  11. Dairy cattle have a lower carbon and environmental footprint than beef cattle, but feeding grain to cattle at the rate we do is simply not sustainable.
  12. Oceans, lakes, and streams are already overfished and there are pollution concerns with eating too much fish. China is way ahead of us in producing fish through aquaculture.
  13. Vegetable oils are unsustainable and most of them are highly refined, processed, and unhealthy.
  14. To create a diet that would feed 10 billion people, they evaluated eliminating all food waste on the planet, determining how much greenhouse gases were sustainable, how much fertilizer could be used, and what diet would sustainably feed 10 billion people by the year 2050. Bottom line—after three years of research by 30 of the world’s top earth scientists—without dramatic changes in the food we eat, the planet will simply not be able to produce the food we need.
  15. The solution: become 100% dependent on green energy by 2050. The agricultural industry is a major fossil fuel consumer and switching to green energy as soon as possible is their solution.

Enter Planetary Health Diet

Like the diet I have been writing about—the one the centenarians eat, the one the best longevity scientists suggest, and the one like suggested as part of an Ayurvedic diet—the “planetary health diet,” as published in the Lancet Commission, says we should eat primarily plant-based with small amounts of meat and dairy.

The planetary diet is not suggesting vegetarians start eating meat or dairy. Vegetarians are way ahead of the curve—it is just making the urgent case that if we do not cut meat and animal protein consumption down, we will not be able to feed the population nor ward off the impact of global warming. They did also consider the health benefits of eating less meat and animal protein.

The commission suggests eating one-half ounce of beef per day, three ounces a week, or a 12-ounce steak once per month. Traditionally, as seen in the Mediterranean Diet and with centenarians, our ancestors would cook a piece of meat in a stew and everyone in the family would get a very small portion once or twice a week, delivering roughly three ounces per week.

What is the Planetary Health Diet?6

  1. Mostly plants: green and colorful vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes are the core foods.
  2. Dairy: (optional) one serving milk, cheese, or yogurt per day
  3. Eggs or poultry: one egg or three and a half ounces of fish or poultry per day
  4. Swap one serving of egg, dairy, fish, or poultry for the three and a half ounces of red meat once per week.
  5. If needed: snack on fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, or whole grain crackers

The best longevity science suggests we should eat a 90% plant-based diet with 10% animal protein. The source of the 10% can vary. Here are samples of how some cultures got their animal protein:

  1. Longevity science: fish is best, followed by small and varying amounts of meat or dairy3
  2. Centenarians (live to over 100): a mix of fish, meat, and dairy—all wild or grass-fed4
  3. Ayurveda: 90% plant-based with 10% mostly from cultured grass-fed dairy5

Read my article Making Senses of the Diet Wars for more details on what we should be eating.

Thank you for cutting down on meat and helping save the world!

References

  1. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/ppt
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/commission-report-great-food-transformation-plant-diet-climate-change/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5862044/
  4. Buettner, D. The Blue Zones. 2012.
  5. https://lifespa.com/vegan-keto-ayurvedic-diets/
  6. Liebman, Bonnie. The “Grandparents’ Diet.” Nutrition Action Newsletter. March 2019.

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