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  • Rebecca Stevens

Healthy eating for a healthy planet

In this post I’ll look at research from the sustainability and nutrition worlds and provide advice about how we can ensure our diets are good for the planet and our health. When it comes to feeding my family my mission is healthy and sustainable meals where possible but with a recognition that it isn’t always going to be possible or perfect every time. This information is for you to digest and follow as you wish. How you feed yourself and your family is a very personal choice. Always remember that even if you make small changes, every small change helps.

What does the environmental evidence tell us?

It is a complex area with research and evidence evolving all of the time. What is known is that our planet cannot sustain the dietary habits that many of us follow – particularly in relation to levels of meat and dairy consumption. With our global population set to rise by 1 billion people over the next decade, we simply won’t be able to produce the food we need without irreversibly damaging the planet including increased levels of flooding, droughts, heat and malnutrition.

What are the main issues?

Many of our actions have a negative impact on the planet including food production. In the UK it has a staggering 30% input towards total green house gas (GHG) emissions making it a serious contributor towards global warming. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C this century, emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be cut by 45% by 2030. The 1.5C limit is known as the planetary boundaries. We are currently at about 1C warming and are already seeing the effects – rising sea levels, ice caps melting, change in weather patterns etc.

Which foods in particular have an impact on the environment?

Meat and dairy are the first and second highest contributors to GHG emissions. Cows and sheep are ruminant animals that produce methane, a very powerful GHG, as part of their digestive processes. In addition we are running out of space to grow crops to feed animals resulting in deforestation. Everyday in Brazil, a football pitch sized piece of land is being cleared everyday to grow soya crops to feed animals.

Research published in 2018 from the University of Oxford showed that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, they use the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products (such as grass-fed beef) still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing (Poore & Nemecek, 2018).

Other food sources have an impact on our sustainability. Fruit juices and smoothies are the third highest contributor to GHG emissions due to the high energy costs of transporting ingredients, packaging and production. Our methods of capturing fish via trawling has improved with technology advancing but this has lead to overfishing. It is also known that some fish species are more sustainable than others. The Marine Stewardship Council identifies which species are the most sustainable and always look for its blue stamp when buying fish. Mussels are the most sustainable option because of the way they are farmed they also don’t need food or fertiliser as they are filter feeders.

What diet are scientists recommending that will help to improve our sustainability and protect our planet?

In 2018, a team of 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries from various scientific disciplines formed The EAT-Lancet Commission and devised the planetary health diet. The goal of the Commission was to reach a scientific consensus by defining targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. The findings of the Commission provide the first ever scientific targets for a healthy diet and sustainable food production within planetary boundaries (to keep the earth’s temperature within 1.5C above what is considered normal) that will allow us to feed up to 10 billion people by 2050.

The planetary health dietis a global reference diet for adults that reduces our meat, fish and dairy consumption and focuses on whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, pulses), fruits, vegetables, nuts and unsaturated plant oils. The diet is quite flexible and allows for adaptation to dietary needs, personal preferences and cultural traditions.

Overall this dietary pattern is not about cutting out meat, it is about reducing it. Vegetarian and vegan diets are two healthy options within the planetary health diet. Scientists also agree that this type of dietary pattern is also better for our health – particularly long-term chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. We also know from research that increasing your plant-based intake has a beneficial effect on your gut health due to increased levels and diversity of fibre in your diet. Scientists have discovered that keeping our gut micro biome healthy has a positive impact on our overall health and how our immune system functions. A take-home message would be to try and have 30 different plant-based items per week. This may sound like a huge challenge but think beyond fruit and veg to beans, legumes, lentils etc.

How can we make it simpler when we think about feeding ourselves and our families?

Based on the planetary health diet more simplistic, easier to follow advice has been provided by one of the EAT-Lancet commission. Thinking about our main meals of the day, over the course of a week we should try to adopt the following flexitarian approach:

· 1 red meat (beef/pork/lamb)

· 2 poultry (chicken/turkey)

· 2 fish (white/oily)

· 2 vegetarian/vegan/plant-based

And in addition, try to reduce our dairy consumption to moderate levels by thinking about one glass of milk per day or one slice of cheese. According to researchers, this dietary pattern will provide all your nutritional requirements - macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and have a positive impact on our planet.

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