science of us

‘The Planetary Health Diet’ Has a Nice Ring to It

Photo: Getty Images

Anyone else riveted by international nutrition battles? It’s the vegans versus the grass-fed meat-eaters — climate change versus the keto diet, fat versus carbs, human nature versus Mother Nature — and everyone is mad or pretending to be, except for the companies making money off all this, and I can’t look away.

Following on the heels of its November cover editorial recommending that the world should be eating a lot less meat (for both human and environmental health), this week the influential medical journal The Lancet released its long and yet still vague plan for exactly how to do this.

The authors have given their plan a cosmic and memorable name: The Planetary Health Diet. One of the diet’s most salient details is that it calls for people in North America to eat 85 percent less beef, specifically (and significantly less “or no” meat or animal products in general), while making up for it with vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. (This translates to about one serving of meat a week.) The entire 30,000-word report — “Food in the Anthropocene” — is available for free online.

Alternately, there is a cheerful, 26-word pie chart:

The argument is that global adherence to this plan would improve both human health (by reducing diseases driven by sugar and saturated fat intake), as well as “planetary” health (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing climate change). “Global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth,” the authors write, and “animal-source foods are responsible for about three-quarters of climate change effects, whereas staple crops, such as wheat, rice, and other cereals, are responsible for a third to a half of pressures on other environmental domains.”

The Planetary Health Diet is the result of two years of work by EAT, a nonprofit organization founded in 2013 by the Norwegian doctor and former model Gunhild Stordalen (funny, that’s also my own background). EAT is supported by the Wellcome Trust (the British biomedical research charity), the Stordalen Foundation (an organization run by Stordalen and her hotelier/investor husband Petter), and the Stockholm Resilience Center (a nonprofit, independent research institute).

The low-carb people I follow on Twitter are generally not pleased with the EAT-Lancet report, pointing out that Americans have been eating less meat and more carbs/grains for the past 45 years, and rates of diabetes and obesity have increased during that time.

Meanwhile, Gunhild Stordalen is taking some tabloid heat, with the Mirror calling her a hypocritical “globe-trotting billionaire” — hypocritical because her private plane trips are arguably also contributing to global warming, etc.

It’s a big ask to expect Americans to shift their diet so dramatically, and it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the report will have. (Even reading the whole Lancet report doesn’t convince me to change my own egg-eating habit, for instance — they suggest eating only two per week — but I’m open to being convinced, and I’ve been eating significantly less meat lately, for what it’s worth.)

To achieve their goals, the report’s authors call for “widespread, multi-sector, multi-level action,” and they propose a sweeping yet non-specific five-part strategy: “seek international commitment to shift toward healthy diets; reorient agricultural priorities from producing large quantities of food to producing healthy food; sustainably intensify food production, generating high-quality output; [facilitate] strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans; and at least halve food loss and waste, in line with global sustainable development goals.”

They suggest these strategies could even include new laws, fiscal measures, and subsidies and penalties, although for now it’s all hypothetical.

In the meantime, I will keep snacking on nuts as if they were popcorn and watching this all unfold as if it were an action movie, which to me it kind of is.

Another Lancet report on nutrition and obesity is due out on January 27.

‘The Planetary Health Diet’ Has a Nice Ring to It