Eating the right combination of foods may lead to a longer, healthier life… and save the planet
Growing up, dinners at my house consisted of a main entree, a starch, vegetables and maybe a side salad, all topped off with milk—which at the time was considered to be a good square meal. Dessert awaited if you cleaned your plate.
Today, scientists and health experts are reimagining the plate for the better: protein 'foods' have been moved to a co-starring role along with whole grains, both of which are balanced by hefty portions of fruits and veggies. It's a long overdue overhaul to the definition of a healthy diet, driven in equal parts by growing global malnutrition, an unsustainable food system and the impending demands of feeding a world population of 10 billion by 2050.
The stakes couldn't be higher. Our food system is not only a greedy consumer of the earth's landmass and water, it's also the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the same time, rates of obesity and malnutrition are skyrocketing, causing premature deaths and illness.
Good for the body, good for the planet
In a new report from the Lancet Commission, a group of multidisciplinary scientists from 16 countries have proposed the Planetary Health Diet, a way to save both lives and the Earth. The guidelines, which are flexitarian in nature and similar to the Mediterranean diet, include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils along with little or no red and processed meats, added sugar, refined grains and starches. According to the scientific panel, converting to the largely plant-based diet could prevent nearly 12 million people a year from dying prematurely.
In addition to the dietary guidelines, the commission also proposes a framework for making food production more sustainable, with lofty goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, improving fertilizer and water use and enhancing agricultural biodiversity, among others. To provide win-win diets for everyone by 2050, the scientists say it will take nothing less than a ‘great food transformation’ and an unprecedented level of cooperation from global policy makers and stakeholders all along the food supply chain.
Small changes add up
We consumers, however, can have an immediate impact simply by tweaking our food choices. We have the power to amp up our veggies, substitute quinoa for potatoes and swap red meat for another protein—even just once a week. As someone who never really liked eating meat, I welcome all the new protein alternatives and guidelines like these from the Canadian government to help brainstorm healthy meals. I’m a big fan of eating 'power foods' that give me a good return of nutrients for the calories and researching and writing on health and medicine for 20 years has only reinforced the value of healthy food choices. My goal is to live a long and healthy life to see as much of my daughter’s life as possible.
I may have an unusually utilitarian approach to food and nutrition, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with carnivores and people who can never get enough bread. I get it—sugar is my Achilles heel and, according to the commission’s report, I should cut my intake in half.
To lead longer, healthier lives and stop degrading the planet, we will all need to re-think how we fill our plate—and when to push it away.