Scientists Designed a Diet That’s Good for You and the Planet

It doesn’t take a degree in nutrition to know that your diet affects your health. Less obvious, but equally true: Your diet affects the planet’s health. Food production causes up to 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world, by one estimate, and we use about 40 percent of all land for agriculture. So … what should we eat to keep ourselves and the Earth healthy?

Against the Way We Eat Now

A committee of 37 scientists from 16 countries, led by Harvard public health professor Dr. Walter Willett, deliberated on exactly this question for years and recently published a report on their findings. Unsurprisingly, they don’t think we should keep eating what we’re eating now. Currently, unhealthy diets cause more fatalities than alcohol, drugs, smoking, and unsafe sex combined. Plus, modern agriculture, in general, is built around profit more than sustainability.

So, what’s better than the status quo? A radical shift — what the scientists call a “Great Food Transformation” — away from processed food and red meat and toward a diet centered on plants. They don’t recommend pure vegetarianism; instead, as several other scientists have noted, their proposed diet maps roughly onto the Mediterranean diet, so named because it’s traditional in countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

Dr. Willett and his team call their diet the “Planetary Health Diet” and argue that it would help alleviate six sustainability issues associated with agriculture, including climate change, biodiversity collapse, and water usage. It could also, they argue, meet the needs of the growing global population, unlike our current patterns; they project that their diet could support a global population of 10 billion by 2050.

More Rice, Less Sugar

The Planetary Health Diet’s pretty simple — more whole grains, less starch and sugar. Its daily calories come mainly from rice, wheat, and corn, unsaturated oils like olive oil, and a little bit of dairy. It’s heavy on fruits and veggies, too, in volume if not in calories. Potatoes, though, are a rare black sheep. The diet recommends just 39 calories from “tubers” per day, which translates to one-quarter of a medium potato.

But like we said, it’s not vegetarian. The diet does present all meat as optional, however, and encourages lean choices like chicken and fish over red meat. Likewise, it allows for some sugar but recommends just 120 calories per day from sweeteners — which means a can of Coke would put you over your daily limit.

The exact calorie recommendations are subject to change, though. The scientists note in their report that they’re sure of the direction we need to head in, food-wise, but less certain about exact quantities and ratios. Critics of the diet aren’t as charitable, however. As Dr. Georgia Ede put it in her article for Psychology Today, “[I]n many cases, it’s plain that they simply pulled a number out of thin air.”

Critics take issue with the diet for other reasons, too. For a diet that’s supposed to be global, it assumes individuals have more control over what they eat than many impoverished people really, practically have, for one thing. The report also stays pretty mum on what people should eat in regions too arid for crops, where refusing to eat animal products can mean starvation. (The report does recognize that the diet will have to be adapted to different cultures and climates, though.) Dr. Ede notes, too, that the whole report was funded by a billionaire animal rights activist, which may have biased its findings against eating meat.

Both Dr. Willett’s team and its critics agree on one thing, though: The way we eat now isn’t healthy for us or the planet. The precise path forward is up for discussion, but if you ever have a choice between a Big Mac and a Mediterranean-style meal … definitely pick the fish and rice. Maybe skip the Coke, while you’re at it.

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