Sustainable Eating Explained by EAT-Lancet

Sharon Palmer

Top scientists from around the world came together to develop important eating strategies to save our planet while supporting our rapidly rising population. Take a look at what they suggest about our eating patterns for a sustainable future.

It’s no secret that our world population is continuing to grow, and that the planet we call home is suffering the consequences. With the number of humans on earth predicted to rise by nearly 2 billion by the year 2050, it is essential that we find ways to fix our food system to support this huge rise, while reducing harm to our environment. That’s why 37 of the world’s leading scientists came together to form the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is dedicated to finding a solution. Their report revealed that transforming our eating habits, improving the ways we produce food, changing our eating patterns, and dramatically reducing our food waste are what is necessary to promote a healthy future.

Produce at the Pasadena farmers market.

What is the Eat-Lancet Report?

“Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems” is a report released in January 2019 that outlines the nutritional and environmental challenges faced by our planet today and in the near future. The report introduces the planetary health diet, a diet which optimizes both human health and environmental sustainability, ensuring a reduction in premature deaths and a viable planet for future generations. The Anthropocene is, according to the commission summary report, “A proposed new geological epoch that is characterized by humanity being the dominating force of change on the planet.” With the increasing influence of human activity on the state of our planet, understanding how to lessen our impact in this epoch is essential.

Modern farming in Bakersfield, California

The report was written by 37 scientists from 16 countries. Their expertise in various fields including human health, agricultural science, political science, and environmental sustainability ensured that the report was feasible and well-researched in all aspects. The co-chairs of the commission are Prof. Walter Willett, MD, and Prof. Johan Rockström PhD. Prof. Willett is a Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition and has authored more than 1,500 articles and three books on healthy and sustainable eating. Prof Rockström is a Professor in Environmental Science at Stockholm University and former Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is an esteemed scientist on global sustainability and global water resources. Together they spearheaded the commission leading with their combined knowledge of dietary and environmental sustainability.

What problems do we need to solve?

The EAT-Lancet Commission is focused on two critical issues: human health and the environment. Though in the last 50 years, changes in our food system have helped to reduce hunger, improve life expectancy, decrease infant and child mortality, and decrease poverty, there has also been a dramatic shift towards unhealthy food consumption, leading to a dramatic increase in rates of obesity and chronic diseases. About 2 billion adults are overweight or obese, and global prevalence of diabetes has doubled in the past 30 years. By contrast, 820 million people worldwide remain undernourished, and 2 billion people have some kind of micronutrient deficiency. With so much of the world facing nutrition-related issues, be it undernutrition, overnutrition, or malnutrition, it is clear that a drastic shift in dietary approaches is necessary.

The other major issue addressed by the report is the incredible burden our current food system is placing on the planet. Food production is currently the biggest contributor to environmental change, with nearly half of the world’s land being used for agriculture. Our food system is driving climate change and loss of biodiversity, interfering with nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and adding to chemical pollution. Adjustments to the way we feed the global population, which is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, are critical.

California farm in Monterrey County.

What is the goal of the report?

The goal presented in the report is to achieve planetary health diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050. The approaches to reach this goal involved several steps:

  • Define a healthy reference diet, using the best evidence available.
  • Define planetary boundaries using six key environmental systems and processes.
  • Apply a global food system modeling framework to assess viability of the measures needed to stay within necessary food production boundaries, while also providing a healthy diet.
  • Outline strategies to succeed in a great food transformation.

What are the dietary targets?

The report describes two scientific targets:

  • Healthy diets
  • Sustainable food production

The evidence supporting the planetary health diet was compiled from randomized studies with CVD risk factor outcomes, observational cohort studies with long follow-up and disease outcomes, and randomized trials of dietary patterns with CVD risk factors and disease outcomes.

The first target, healthy diets, outlines a dietary pattern that is largely plant-based. The plan drastically reduces red meat consumption and may include 1 to 2 servings of fish per week and 1 serving of dairy per day, while emphasizing generous amounts of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts. This diet is specifically designed not to be deprivational, but rather aspirational—it includes a variety of flavors, colors, and textures, ensuring a wide range of nutrients. Based on multiple modeling approaches, the diet is predicted to prevent around 11 million premature deaths per year.

This recipe for Heirloom Bean Cassoulet with Root Vegetables focuses on shifting to more vegetables and legumes in the diet.

The second target is sustainable food production. As previously mentioned, our current food system is the largest pressure on the environment today. The target calls for the decarbonization of the food system in the next 30 years, along with the halting of agricultural expansion of land. In order to succeed in the planetary health diet, there are three essential components to be implemented:

  • The aforementioned dietary shift
  • Reducing food loss and waste by 50%
  • Improved production practice to close the yield gap of attained versus attainable agricultural yields.

If all three components are put in place, we have a much better chance at saving the planet.

What are the strategies to achieve these targets?

In order to succeed at this great food transformation, the commission has laid out five strategies.

  • Seeking both international and national commitment to the shift toward healthy, sustainable diets.
  • Transforming priorities in agriculture from producing a high yield of food, towards producing healthy food. This will call for more ecosystem based, diverse, plant-based food systems rather than monoculture, and require an increase in production of vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes and nuts, with a drastic decrease in red meat production.
  • Intensifying food production in a sustainable way, which will close the yield gap and redistribute fertilization which is currently harming the environment.
  • Collaborative governance of both earth’s land and oceans
  • Reducing our food loss and waste by at least 50%, which is in accordance to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What does this mean for you?

At an individual level, some ways you can help achieve the goals of the EAT-Lancet report are by:

  • Adopting a more plant-based diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts, while reducing your consumption of meat, poultry and eggs.
  • Being mindful of how much food you buy at once, and properly storing food you have yet to eat.
  • Setting up a composting system in your home.
Check out my 6 Ways to Cut Your Food Waste

A few simple changes at the individual level can make a huge difference to both your own health and our planet.

For other tips on eating more sustainable, check out some of my top blogs:

Top 5 Tips for Greening Your Plate
Cut Back on Meat for a Lower Carbon Footprint
Eat for The Environment

Written by Ally Mirin, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *