The Planetary Diet
The health of our planet depends on our plates. We may not think about it when we sit down to our daily meals, or when we're grabbing din to-go, but our food choices have a massive impact on our environment. A decade ago, production of animal-based foods accounted for more than three-quarters of global agricultural land use and around two-thirds of agriculture’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, while only contributing 37 percent of total protein consumed by people in that year. What this means is that our daily meals - in particular those with red meat and dairy - have been contributing to pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and water depletion and contamination in an astounding way. We are likely not faring better in 2020. So to help heal our planet, must we all go vegan?
Short answer: No. And I certainly don't want you to become deficient in B12! But even a small dietary shift can have a lasting benefit when many people take part:
Shifting to a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.
What is the Planetary Diet
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission developed the world’s first scientific targets for healthy and sustainable food systems, including a “planetary health diet." This isn't a true diet per say, but more of an action plan to have more variety of high-quality plant-based foods and less animal-based foods, refined grains, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. It's designed to be flexible enough for most situations, traditions, and dietary preferences.
Compared with current diets, this shift will require global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by 50%, while consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and legumes must double. In the age of #paleo and #keto diets, this may not be as easy to take hold, but just think of the role in the environment your diet plays. Call it conscious eating.
In the planetary diet, half the plate is filled with fruits and vegetables (limited starchy vegetables, like potatoes), while the other half consists of whole grains and plant-based protein (beans, lentils, pulses, nuts), with unsaturated oils and modest amounts of animal-based protein foods.
The link between diet and health is not new, and researchers have been looking at the effects of a plant-based diet vs. a "Western" diet on our overall health since at least the 80s. It is estimated that our unhealthy diets pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined
Since this is a plant-based diet, and similar to the Mediterranean diet, rich in veggies and healthy fats, there are also longevity benefits to it. Key to our health is a generous intake of fiber, plant protein, healthy fats, and above all - variety. Beans, beans, beans. Please increase your bean intake for the sake of your microbiome. Whole grains are also recommended although I am partial to ancient grains, as they have not been processed through modern technology like hybridization. Instead they are seeds, grasses and grains harvested the same way for hundreds of years.
Look out for Amaranth, Buckwheat, Farro, Freekeh, Kamut, Spelt, Teff, Millet - and my personal staple: Quinoa.
What else can we do besides switching to be more plant-based? Try minimizing your own food waste. From a societal perspective, this is a highly complex problem that involves food production practices, but at home there are ways to minimize your personal impact.
- Meal prep: this not only helps plan and organize your week's meals, but it can reduce the waste of buying food in pretty packaging at the store impulsively (knowing damn well you may not even eat it).
- Don't toss your overripe fruit, add it to a smoothie or bake with it.
- Use vegetable scraps like carrot peels, celery leaves, parsley stems, mushroom stems, and onion skins to make a stock.
- Compost: I was always afraid I would need worms or something to compost, but you can do it with only three things: dead leaves, scraps and water. See more on EPA.
It's estimated that there will be 10 billion people by the year 2050. That is a lot of mouths to feed, so all the more reason to act now and ensure a healthy and sustainable food system for all. The recent droughts across the world are also a reminder to be more mindful of our water footprint. While a beef hamburger uses over 3,000 liters of water, cutting our meat consumption can reduce our water footprint by up to 55%.
All in all, this is a win-win situation. You get healthier and more vibrant, while the planet heals and revives. From palate to plate to planet, your decisions will have a lasting impact on the future.