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BBC - The diet to save lives, the planet and feed us all? (NOT)

James Gallagher, Health and science correspondent, BBC News


The latest diet to supposedly save the planet is the so-called flexitarian - largely vegetarian, with a bit of meat and fish. Could this diet, also labelled the "planetary health diet", really save the world while keeping body and mind together at the same time?


17 January 2019 - BBC News 

The tone of this BBC article - along with other media on the subject - would seem to suggest that the recommendations offered in a recent, highly publicised publication in the Lancet by the 'EAT-Lancet Commission' constituted official public health dietary guidelines, rather than simply the opinions of the academic researchers involved (and/or those of some of the food companies working with the EAT Foundation).

Although it does at least ask:

"Could this diet, also labelled the "planetary health diet", really save the world while keeping body and mind together at the same time?"

In a word - NO.  Absolutely not.  

According to several well-informed critiques that have already appeared, explaining and referencing in detail the actual scientific evidence, the largely vegan/vegetarian diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet consortium would be likely to do exactly the opposite. See:

Calls to eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds are not controversial, as there is a general consensus that these foods are seriously lacking from the typical modern, western-type diet.

Consuming more whole grain cereals (particularly in place of refined ones) may also benefit many consumers; although equally, there is good evidence that many others fare better on relatively 'low-carb' diets (see 'Lore of Nutrition').

But animal-derived foods (i.e. fish, meat, eggs  and dairy products) are the richest sources of all essential nutrients  - and they are particularly important sources of some nutrients that are absolutely vital for normal brain development and function, and which are not found in plant foods including the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA; Vitamins A (retinol), D3, K2. and B12; as well as iodine, iron, zinc, and many others. 

Please see 'Your Brain on Plants: Micronutrients and mental health' for an excellent overview. 

It therefore follows that any diet that excludes these foods (or absolutely minimises them, as the 'EAT' diet does) will make it more difficult to obtain adequate intakes - and risks adding yet further to the global mental health crisis

For further news relating to vegan or vegetarian diets - and evidence for their potential risks to brain health (unless properly supplemented with Vitamin B12 and omega-3 DHA at the very least - but in most cases other key brain nutrients not usually obtained in sufficient quantities), see here.

A diet has been developed that promises to save lives, feed 10 billion people and all without causing catastrophic damage to the planet.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how we are going to feed billions more people in the decades to come. Their answer - "the planetary health diet" - does not completely banish meat and dairy. But it is recommending we get most of our protein from nuts and legumes (such as beans and lentils) instead.

Their diet needs an enormous shift in what we pile on to our plates and for us to turn to foods that we barely eat.

What changes am I going to have to make?

If you eat meat every day then this is the first biggie. For red meat you're looking at a burger a week or a large steak a month and that's your lot.

You can still have a couple of portions of fish and the same of chicken a week, but plants are where the rest of your protein will need to come from. The researchers are recommending nuts and a good helping of legumes every day instead.

There's also a major push on all fruit and veg, which should make up half of every plate of food we eat. Although there's a cull on "starchy vegetables" such as the humble potato or cassava which is widely eaten in Africa.

So what is the diet in detail?

If you served it all up this is what you would be allowed each day:

  1. Nuts - 50g a day
  2. Beanschickpeaslentils and other legumes - 75g a day
  3. Fish - 28g a day
  4. Eggs - 13g a day (so one and a bit a week)
  5. Meat - 14g a day of red meat and 29g a day of chicken
  6. Carbs - whole grains like bread and rice 232g a day and 50g a day of starchy vegetables
  7. Dairy - 250g - the equivalent of one glass of milk
  8. Vegetables -(300g) and fruit (200g)

The diet has room for 31g of sugar and about 50g worth of oils like olive oil.

Will it taste awful?

Prof Walter Willet, one of the researchers who is based at Harvard, said no and that after a childhood on a farm eating three portions of red meat a day he was now pretty much in line with the planetary health diet.

"There's tremendous variety there," he said. "You can take those foods and put them together in thousands of different ways. We're not talking about a deprivation diet here, it is healthy eating that is flexible and enjoyable."

Is this for real, or just a fantasy?

This plan requires changes to diets in pretty much every corner of the world. Europe and North America need to cut back massively on red meat, East Asia needs to cut back on fish, Africa on starchy vegetables.

"Humanity has never attempted to change the food system at this scale and this speed," said Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

"Whether it's a fantasy or not, a fantasy doesn't have to be bad... it's time to dream of a good world," she says.

Taxes on red meat are one of the many options the researchers say may be necessary to persuade us to switch diets.

Who came up with this?

A group of 37 scientists from around the world were brought together as part of the EAT-Lancet commission.

They're a mix of experts from farming to climate change to nutrition. They took two years to come up with their findings which have been published in the Lancet.

Why do we need a diet for 10 billion people?

The world population reached seven billion in 2011 and it's now around 7.7 billion. That figure is expected to reach 10 billion around 2050 and will keep on climbing.

Will it save lives?

The researchers say the diet will prevent about 11 million people dying each year.

That number is largely down to cutting diseases related to unhealthy diets such as heart attacks, strokes and some cancers. These are now the biggest killers in developed countries.

So will this diet save the planet?

The researchers' aim was to feed more people while:

  • minimising greenhouse gas emissions
  • preventing any species going extinct
  • having no expansion of farmland, and
  • preserving water

However, just changing diets is nowhere near enough.

To make the numbers add up, also requires a halving of food waste and an increase in the amount of food produced on current farmland.

Why isn't meat being banned?

"If we were just minimising greenhouse gases we'd say everyone be vegan," said Prof Willet.

However, it was unclear whether a vegan diet was the healthiest option, he said.

So what happens now?

The EAT-Lancet Commission is going to take its findings to governments around the world and bodies such as the WHO to see if it can begin to change the way we eat.