A Universal Healthy Reference Diet Could Drastically Change the Health of Earth and its Residents

January 31, 2019 • 3 min read
Summary

More people are eating unhealthy foods, the world’s population continues to grow, and food production strains local ecosystems and Earth's stability.

A collaboration between EAT and The Lancet includes 19 Commissioners and 18 coauthors from 16 countries. The goal? Take the first major steps toward a “Great Food Transformation” – providing diets that are both healthy and environmentally sustainable to all of the world’s citizen’s by 2050. With a focus on whole food nutrition and the power of phytonutrients found in plant sources of food, this commission has the potential to monumentally enhance the future of the world’s citizens.

The Problem

More people are eating unhealthy foods, the world’s population continues to grow, and food production practices are straining local ecosystems as well as the stability of the Earth system as a whole (the EAT-Lancet commission explains that food production is the largest cause of global environmental change).

While some individuals may be getting enough calories (millions still do not), diet quality is often poor (high-calorie, heavily processed, reliant on animal-source foods). These setbacks lead to major issues like:

  • Micronutrient deficiencies
  • Diet-related obesity
  • Diet-related non-communicable diseases (heart disease, stroke, diabetes)

The Solution

The EAT-Lancet commission serves to create and implement a “universal healthy reference diet” focused on foods, dietary patterns, and health outcomes. This diet recommends most calories to come from:

  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes and nuts
  • Unsaturated oils

Vegetables and fruits provide a critical source of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients, with the latter being completely unique to plant sources of food. The commission also advises: “most benefit from these foods is probable if a mix is included as suggested.” Eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits is easily identified as eating a wide variety of colors. The color of food is widely indicative of the phytonutrients found in plant foods that provide a plethora of health benefits.

The commission identifies grains as the “largest source of energy in almost all diets worldwide,” although refined grains are largely stripped of many nutrients and fiber. Choosing whole grains over refined grains is essential for taking advantage of these components.

It is also important to choose unsaturated vegetable oils over saturated fat. A healthy ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 is key.

The commission’s universal healthy reference diet recommends low to moderate amounts of seafood and poultry and little to no intake of red or processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.

The commission acknowledges that nutrition is different among populations because of varying needs based on age, sex, disease status, physical activity levels, and needs of vulnerable populations (pregnant women, infants). This Commission focuses on diets for “generally healthy individuals aged 2 years and older.”

Their definition of a “healthy diet” comes from evidence-based controlled feeding studies in humans, observational studies, and randomized trials.

In addition to improving diet quality, the Great Food Transformation includes such measures as to improve food production practices such as “conservation agriculture, sustainable and ecological intensification, agroecological and diversified farming systems, precision agriculture, and organic farming.” The key focus is on improving sustainability in the world’s farms, including “improving soil carbon concentrations, reduction of nutrient leakage from fields, and enhanced efficiency of water use by crops.”

The Strategy

Implementing such a global change in food production is certainly no easy feat. The commission stakes its success on five major strategies:

  1. International and national commitment
  2. Prioritize producing healthy food in agriculture
  3. Increase high-quality output as part of a sustainable food production system
  4. Unite world governments to regulate land and ocean use
  5. (At least) halve food losses and waste

The Goals

There are two major goals to reach as part of this Great Food Transformation: improve the health of the world’s citizens through diet changes and reduce environmental degradation caused by food production. Experts estimate that success in this transformation could reduce total mortality by as much as 23.6%. And changes in food production practices could benefit the environment in multiple ways:

  • Climate change
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Freshwater use
  • Interference with global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
  • Land-system change

The Bottom Line

A global focus on whole food nutrition and the power of phytonutrients to improve both quality of human lives and environmental sustainability could dramatically change the world in 30 years.

For more on organic and sustainable farming, click here.
For more on the whole food health advantage, click here.

Read the full article, “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.

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