We eat a lot of food. Yet we are as unhealthy as ever. The problem is we are overconsuming unhealthy foods and not eating enough nutritious foods. A recent study suggest that if we as a planet adopt a new dietary pattern, we could all be healthier. This ‘Planetary Health Diet’ would not only reduce morality, but also result in more sustainable food systems, and reduce the environmental impact of food production. I argue that a plant-based diet may even be less expensive than one centered around meats and processed foods. This week I tried applying the recommendations of ‘The Planetary Health Diet’ to see how it would look in my life.
We all know that a diet low in red meat and sugars, and high in fruits, vegetables, and nuts is good for our health. But research suggest it may also be necessary for the health of our planet.
Planetary Health Diet
According to a study by Dr. Walter Willett and colleagues published in The Lancet, argue that “diets inextricably link human health and environmental sustainability.” Decreasing consumption of beef, lamb, pork and sugar by 50% and increasing plant-based foods could reduce premature deaths, malnutrition (including in those who are overweight), water use, emissions, pollution and climate change.
This week, I tried integrating the recommendations of the ‘The Planetary Health Diet into my own diet. I began by choosing real foods (you know, the ones that don’t need a food label). Of the foods that do need a label, I kept an eye out for added sugars.
Key Points from the Study
Don’t worry, you don’t need to read the 47-page report. Here are some of the key points from the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diet from sustainable food systems.
- 820 million people don’t have enough food. Even more are eating an unhealthy diet that contributes to mortality. Furthermore, current global food production is one of the biggest risks to our planet.
- By 2050, there are estimated to be approximately 10 billion people on Earth. The effects of food production for this many people is only going to get worse, reducing the sustainability of the Earth system.
- We need healthy diets from a sustainable food system.
- Healthy diets have an appropriate number of calories, consist of a diversity in plant-based foods, are low in animal products, have unsaturated (rather than saturated) fats, and are low in refine grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars.
- To transform to a healthy diet by 2050, we need to globally cut unhealthy foods by more 50%
- Sustainable food systems should use no additional land, protect biodiversity, conserve water, reduce pollution, and cause no further increase in dangerous emissions
- Large reductions in food waste and major changes in food production on a global level will be needed for this change.
- Such a change from unhealthy to healthy diets is estimated to reduce premature deaths by approximately 11 million a year
My Key Point:
I know that these recommendations are on a larger, global level as they relate to food production. But remember that we vote with our dollars. If we are buying minimally processed foods, mostly plant-based, and with few added sugars, companies are more likely to make changes to policy consistent with what “consumers” are demanding.
Carbs and Natural vs. Added Sugar
Sugar and carbohydrates are actually part of a healthy diet. If we cut out sugar, then we have to remove fruits. If we remove carbohydrates from our diets, then we have to eliminate vegetables. Dairy products also contain natural sugars. It’s the sugars that are added to products (i.e., processed foods) that I am most worried about.
By 2020, food labels will need to contain a new line under carbohydrates to inform how much added sugar products contain. Many companies have already implemented this change.
We only need 24 grams of sugar a day. If you have one can of soda or just three cookies, you are already over the recommended amount for the entire day! (One 12 oz can of soda has 39g of added sugar).
My shopping this week:
In total, I spent $85.04 to feed a family of 5 for one week. We purchased 21 items of food, 3 of which contained added sugar.
Here’s what I bought, broken down into categories of fruits & veggies, meat & dairy, and packaged foods.
|Fruits and Veggies||Cost||Added sugar per serving|
|Apples 3 lb bag (approx. 8 apples)||$4.94||0|
|Organic Carrots 2 lb bag (approx. 14 carrots)||$1.76||0|
|Potatoes 5 lb bag||$3.49||0|
|Meat and Dairy|
|Honey Nut Cheerios (2 boxes)||$7.00||9g*|
|Noodle soup (2 packages)||$0.92||0|
*Honey Nut Cheerios lists Sugars and Other Carbohydrates, but not Added Sugar. Since sugar is the second ingredient listed behind Whole Grain Oats, I suspect this number represents the added sugar but cannot be certain. Regardless, that’s a lot of sugar!
- Scrambled eggs and home fries
- Omelets with spinach, tomato, onions, and cheese
- Toast with peanut butter
- Cheerios and milk (kids)
- Peanut Butter sandwiches (kids)
- Grilled cheese sandwiches (kids)
- Noodle soup (kids)
- Salad (husband)
- Cheerios (my kids eat a lot of Cheerios)
- Popcorn (air popped, salt but no butter added)
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Carrots with hummus (I took this and an apple for lunch every day this week)
- Spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce (2 meals)
- Baked potato with steamed broccoli and carrots (2 meals – my kids actually fought over the broccoli! All 3 of them asked for more!)
- Chicken wraps with spinach, tomatoes, carrots, onions, and cheese (2 meals)
**We alternated nights so as to not have the same dinner two consecutive days.
For only $85, my family of 5 was able to eat an entire week’s worth of meals and snacks based around fruits and vegetables while cutting back on meats, processed foods, and added sugars. I did buy some products for my kids that contain added sugars (bread, peanut butter, Honey Nut Cheerios), and I will be more mindful of their sugar consumption going forward.
We also voted with our dollars by attempting to choose food from sustainable food sources. We did not consume any beef, pork, lamb, or fish.
While we’re certainly not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction for our health and for the planet. As a bonus, we stayed below our $100 food budget for the week!
What are your thoughts about the ‘Planetary Health Diet’?