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How you can change your diet to benefit both your health and the planet

By: Amanda Schmidt 

A plant-based diet could help save both human health and the environment. More than 30 world-leading scientists were brought together to produce the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.  EAT is the science-based global platform for food system transformation.

Harvard University professor Walter Willett and Potsdam Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre professor Johan Rockström presented the report at  the EAT-Lancet Launch Lecture  at the University of Oslo Aula, on Jan. 17, 2019.

“The unique feature of this first-ever scientific assessment is that we got the medical scholars to work together with the sustainability scholars for the first time, advancing an integrated, universal framework to quantify healthy diets and sustainable food systems,” Rockström, a sustainability expert, said at the lecture.

The report is multi-disciplinary, as well as multicultural, with representatives from 16 countries contributing to the findings.

"Humanity is facing a huge crisis today in terms of the environment, but also in terms of human health and well-being," Willett, a specialist in epidemiology and nutrition, said at the lecture.

Humanity is facing a massive epidemic of obesity, which is affecting almost every country in the world except those currently burdened by warfare. At the same time, while there has been a decline in undernutrition, there continues to be high rates of undernutrition in the world.

There are about 1 billion people that are undernourished and several billion more are overweight or have poor quality diets. The majority of the world's population is sub-optimally malnourished either because of too much or too little of the right foods, according to Willett.

Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined, according to the report.

At the same time that the food system is undermining human health, it is also destroying the environment.

Global food production constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation. It threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience.

Agriculture occupies nearly 40 percent of global land, making agroecosystems the largest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. Food production is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70 percent of freshwater use. Land conversion for food production is the single most important driver of biodiversity loss, the report summary reads.

It is also the largest disrupter of the global nitrogen phosphorus and cycle nutrients leading to  eutrophication, according to Rockström.

The commission set out to determine a diet that is both healthy and does not undermine the environment. The commission also set a goal that a global 

The healthy diet they produced “is not too different than what you’ve heard in other dietary recommendations, but we spent some extra effort looking at the major protein sources,” Willett said, explaining that protein sources make a huge difference both for health and for environmental implications.

The diet consists of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars.

To achieve this, global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods, such as red meat and sugar, will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent.

The food group intake ranges that the commission suggests allow flexibility to accommodate various food types, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual preferences.

The diet is not a deprivation diet, as it should provide an adequate number of calories per a day to remain both healthy and satisfied.

The perhaps most controversial aspect of the diet are the quite modest amounts of red meat from beef, pork, or lamb, which they identified as about 14 grams a day, Willett said.

Shifting from unhealthy diets to the planetary health diet can prevent 11 million premature adult deaths per year. It will also drive the transition toward a sustainable global food system by 2050 that ensures healthy food for all within planetary boundaries, the report summary reads.

Amanda Schmidt is an AccuWeather Staff Writer.