The planetary health diet optimises human health and is sustainable for the planet. (Photo: Ella Olsson via Wikimedia Commons)
The UN estimates that the world population will reach 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.4 billion by 2100. Feeding this growing population with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without transforming eating habits, improving food production, and reducing food waste.
To this end, in 2019, the EAT–Lancet Commission was launched to address this need. It proposed a universal healthy reference diet, known as the planetary health diet or EAT–Lancet diet, that optimises human health without exceeding planetary boundaries.
To transform diets by 2050, substantial dietary shifts were recommended, including halving consumption of foods such as red meat and starchy vegetables, and doubling consumption of legumes, whole grains, and nuts. “While regions throughout the world differ in how they define a healthy reference diet, decreasing the consumption of red meat and sugar, and increasing the intake of fruit and vegetables are common denominators,” says Ameya Karnik, a nutritionist based in Mumbai.
So, what is the planetary health diet?
It is a diet that is designed to be both healthy for humans and sustainable for the planet. It is based on a variety of plant-based foods, with moderate amounts of animal-sourced foods.
The diet recommends that people consume 2,500 calories per day, which is slightly more than what many people are eating today. They should eat a variety of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. They should also limit their intake of animal-based foods, particularly red meat and processed meats. “Unsaturated fats should be chosen over saturated fats, and refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars should be avoided,” says Karnik.
There were, however, concerns raised about whether the diet provides adequate essential micronutrients, particularly those that are generally found in higher quantities and in more bioavailable forms in animal-sourced foods. To address these concerns, a 2023 update to the planetary health diet has been proposed. It includes modifications to the original diet that are designed to achieve micronutrient adequacy (without fortification or supplementation) for adults. These modifications include increasing the proportion of animal-sourced foods in the diet and reducing foods that are high in phytate.
What are the diet’s benefits for humans?
Worldwide, 39 percent of adults are overweight or obese, 31 percent have hypertension, and 69 percent of women of reproductive age have one or more micronutrient deficiencies.
The planetary health diet is rich in foods that are good for human health and limits foods that can be harmful. “As per the researchers, adopting it offers many health benefits such as reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improved gut health, and weight loss or maintenance were also listed,” says Dr Meena Shah, a general practitioner. A 2023 study also found that eating more planet-friendly foods could help you live a longer, healthier life.
Benefits for the environment
Food production accounts for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 per cent of freshwater use. Some foods have a much larger carbon footprint than others. For example, producing 100 grams of beef emits nearly 50 kg of greenhouse gases, while producing the same amount of tofu emits 1.98 kg.
According to the researchers, eating less meat is one of the best ways to reduce our impact on the environment. A recent study by the University of Oxford also found that vegan diets resulted in 75 per cent less land use, 54 percent less water use, and 66 per cent less biodiversity loss than meat-heavy diets.
Modern agriculture, food production, and distribution are also major contributors of greenhouse gases. Agricultural activities contribute 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and broader rural land use decisions have an even greater impact.
To this end, the Commission has modelled global scenarios in which the planetary health diet was adopted and compared them against a greenhouse gas target compatible with the 1.5 degrees Celsius mean global temperature increase by 2100, set by the Paris Agreement. They found that if we continue to eat as we do today, emissions could double by 2050. But if we increased consumption of plant-based diets, we could reduce emissions by up to 80 percent.
How to follow the planetary health diet
This is flexible diet, which can be adapted to individual needs and preferences. Here are some general tips for following it:
● Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
● Choose whole grains over refined grains.
● Include legumes (such as beans, lentils, and peas) in your diet.
● Eat nuts and seeds regularly.
● Limit your intake of red meat and processed meats.
● Choose sustainable seafood options.
● Cook more meals at home. This gives you more control over the ingredients in your food and makes it easier to follow the diet.
● Plan your meals ahead of time. This will help you to make sure that you have all the ingredients you need and that you are eating a variety of healthy foods.
● Make small changes gradually. Don’t try to change your diet all at once. Start by making small changes, such as adding more fruits and vegetables to your meals or eating less meat.
● Find a community of people who are also following the planetary health diet. This can provide support and motivation.
Examples of planetary health-friendly meals and snacks:
● Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries and nuts, yoghurt with fruit and granola, smoothie made with fruits, vegetables, and yoghurt
● Lunch: Baked cod with creamy pesto, veggie pizza, risotto, stir-fry veggies with rice
● Dinner: Veggie taco, falafel wrap with hummus, chicken ramen soup, leftover red curry
● Snacks: Fruits, nuts, seeds, yogurt