The way we eat could doom us as a species. Here’s a new diet designed to save us.

Mmm, veggie burger | Shutterstock

The way we eat and produce food has become so destructive to the environment and our health that it now threatens the long-term survival of the human species, an international commission of 37 scientists write in a sprawling new Lancet report.

We now have so many interconnected food-related crises — climate change, pollution, and food waste, not to mention malnutrition and obesity — that it will be impossible to feed the 10 billion people expected by 2050 unless we make dramatic changes to our diets and farming practices, the researchers argue.

What’s needed, according to the peer-reviewed report, titled “Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems,” is a new philosophy for how to eat on planet Earth. Though there are huge variations around the world in what and how much we consume, we are all in this existential crisis together.

Which brings us to what seems to be the most controversial aspect of this report: its specific dietary advice for ensuring that everyone’s nutritional needs are met without exceeding “planetary boundaries.” To survive as a species, it says, everyone — including you! —is advised to eat mostly vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts, and limit red meat consumption to just one serving per week.

The EAT–Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health Plate.

This “planetary health diet,” as the authors call it, is a provocative recommendation, especially for those of us in countries (like the United States) where many people eat multiple servings of meat a day. It would require a radical revamping of our food culture — prioritizing sustainability and collective survival over food hedonism and tradition.

So it’s no shocker that there’s been some pushback to the report, and not just from the usual suspects in the meat industry, who seem to feel increasingly threatened by modest increases in flexitarianism, veganism, and good old-fashioned vegetarianism. A few researchers and doctors have also quibbled with some of the details in the dietary advice,and whether we really know what a healthy diet for all humans looks like. Let’s chow down on the details.

Why the EAT-Lancet Commission is pushing a plant-based diet

After three years of reviewing what they say was “the best evidence available for healthy diets and sustainable food production,” the Lancet authors came up with a set of targets for shifting diets on an average intake of 2,500 calories a day. Funding for the initiative came from the Wellcome Trust in the UK and the EAT Foundation, the private foundation of Norwegian billionaires Gunhild and Petter Stordalen.

The targets are ambitious, to say the least.

Relative to average global consumption patterns, everyone should eat half as much red meat and sugar, and twice as manynuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Per person, this means about less than half an ounce of red meat per day, or one serving of red meat (one quarter-pound hamburger) per week. The targets are similarly stringent for other animal products, recommending less than one ounce of white meat (such as chicken), one ounce of fish, one-quarter of an egg, and 9 ounces of milk per day.

Targets for a planetary health diet, with possible ranges, for an intake of 2,500 calories per day.

According to Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University and the lead author on the report, there is strong evidence of the health benefits of plant-based diets. “Our conclusions are based on dozens of randomized controlled feeding studies that show improvements in cardiovascular risk factors with higher intakes of plant-based protein sources,” he wrote in an email.

He cited Predimed and the Lyon Diet Heart Study, two randomized controlled trials (considered the “gold standard” for evidence in health research) of the Mediterranean diet that showed benefits for cardiovascular disease risk or overall mortality. The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes loading up on olive oil, fish, nuts, and fresh produce, is a good example of something that fits well with the report’s dietary targets, he added. (For a solid critique of the Predimed study, check out Julia Belluz’s recent piece.)

Francesco Branca, the head of nutrition at the World Health Organization and a Lancet co-author, says the report is also largely in line with WHO recommendations on fats and carbohydrates. He cited a recent systematic review of prospective studies and clinical trials published in the Lancet, which found that increasing “dietary fiber intake and replacing refined grains with whole grains is expected to benefit human health.”

But, of course, the planetary health diet is not just about human health. As Marco Springmann, a University of Oxford researcher and a member of the commission, showed in a recent Nature paper, animal products generate the majority of food-related greenhouse gas emissions (72 to 78 percent of total agricultural emissions). Even the world’s largest livestock companies, through efforts like the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, admit they need to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from the billions of animals they raise to sell to us.

Much of the demand for animal products comes from more affluent countries like the US — where each person ate 222 pounds of red meat and poultry, on average, in 2018. As the Lancet report argues, we’re eating far more than our fair share, environmentally speaking.

The report acknowledges that animal agriculture can be sustainable and support healthy ecosystems in some contexts. But “plant-based foods cause fewer adverse environmental effects” than animal products by every metric. “We estimated that changes in food production practices could reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 by 10 percent, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emissions by 80 percent,” it says. So we could help limit the climate and pollution mess by scaling back meat and dairy and scaling up grains, legumes, and nuts.

Why some researchers and doctors are pushing back

According to Stanford meta-researcher John Ioannidis, nutrition science hasn’t yet been able to prove if there is a single set of nutritional guidelines as specific as the ones in the Lancet report for all humans to follow.

The problem, he says, is that the nutrition studies provided by the researchers to back up this “healthy” diet are observational, which means they can’t actually tell us whether one thing caused another thing to happen — only that two things are associated. “Much has never been tested in randomized trials and they continue to promote it as if it is solid knowledge,“ he told Vox by email.

He went on to explain that the only component of the EAT-Lancet diet that has been evaluated with large randomized trials is unsaturated versus saturated fats: “There is indeed a small/modest observed benefit for cardiovascular events but even this seems to be driven mostly by the trials that are not adequately controlled. Sugars and added sugars have been assessed in small randomized trials with mostly unimpressive results.”

Others also quibble with the report’snutritional recommendations — including doctors and dietitians who advocate for low-carb patterns of eating, especially in an era when we are drowning in sugar and refined carbs.

In a piece for Psychology Today, Georgia Ede, a psychiatrist and nutrition consultant, writes that “animal foods are essential to optimal human health” and describes the various ways she thinks the EAT-Lancet Commission authors fail to provide adequate scientific evidence for the nutritional value of a plant-based diet. “For those of us with insulin resistance (aka ‘pre-diabetes’) whose insulin levels tend to run too high, the Commission’s high-carbohydrate diet — based on up to 60 percent of calories from whole grains, in addition to fruits and starchy vegetables — is potentially dangerous,” Ede notes.

What about all the people who are malnourished or don’t eat much meat at all?

As the chart from the World Resources Institute above shows, meat consumption varies greatly by country. And the report notes that many of the 1 billion of the world’s population who are malnourished need more animal products in their diet, not less. “In some places, like rural sub-Saharan Africa, and rural South Asia, people don’t get enough animal products to get their growth cognitive needs,” said Jessica Fanzo, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins. Stunting in kids, for instance, is sometimes associated with low consumption of animal products and other protein-rich foods.

Ultimately, the dietary guidance the report offers is meant to be flexible and tailored to different cultures and food availabilities. But there’s a clear message for wealthier countries where meat consumption is high: We will need to cut way back, as much as 90 percent.

“In the US, Australia, Brazil, and some European countries where we consume too much animal products overall, the question is can we shift to lower-impact foods like poultry and legumes?” said Fanzo. “And can we shift that equilibrium so that those who aren’t getting enough get more animal products to create more balance?”

As for how we’d get there, the report authors admit, “Humanity has never aimed to change the food system so radically at this scale or speed.” Butthey note that several countries — including China, Brazil, Vietnam, and Finland — have changed their food systems rapidly in recent decades (in some cases, dramatically increasing meat consumption), and there may be clues for how governments can take it back in reverse.

To shift the world to plant-based diets, we couldn’t count on individuals. Instead, we would need a wide range of policies — everything from restricting certain foods toguiding food choices with incentives. This could mean requiring unpopular methods like taxes, rationing, and mandates. The researchers also call for a global treaty to limit the political influence of the food industry — modeled on the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Feeding everyone within planetary boundaries will also mean changing agricultural practices and reducing food loss. It’s a gargantuan task, and it’s clearly not a top priority yet for most leaders (ahem, Donald Trump). Yet it’s time to get moving, time to sift through the big ambitious ideas like those in the Lancet report and figure out how to eat in ways that won’t destroy the planet. Otherwise, we might be cooked.


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7 thoughts on “The way we eat could doom us as a species. Here’s a new diet designed to save us.

  1. The EAT-Lancet report is decent in that it brings up the problems we face. But the dietary solution offered is the opposite of helpful. We’ve been down this road before. We have no reason to think that the failure of the past will, if repeated, lead to success in the future.

    If you’re interested, I wrote about EAT-Lancet and summarized the views of many others:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for posting your rebuttal to the original post of EAT-Lancet. I cannot say that I agree with your viewpoint, but I do think you made some exceptional points. I approved your link on the post so that others may see the different views and make their own decisions. Education is key and will make us all better. Cheers, Ben!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t always know how much I agree with what I write. Sometimes, I make the strongest case I can, just to see what evidence I can gather. But I might change my mind.

        I’m not arguing against a plant-based diet, per se. Recently, on my paleo diet, I’ve been eating more vegetables than I did back when I was a vegetarian. That is common among paleo advocates. I have a couple books on plant-based paleo and ketogenic diets. Still, even from a plant-based perspective, the EAT-Lancet diet fails. Most of the ‘plants’ being recommended are carbs with only room left over for 5% of vegetables.

        My main irritation is what I perceive as a half century of failed dietary recommendations with experts who, in fear of losing their authority, refuse to correct. So, they double down on dong more of the same. That won’t lead to sustainability in either public health or environmental health. Self-proclaimed experts in the major institutions have a bad track record when it comes to food recommendations.

        I’m a liberal. And I’m not anti-elitist or anti-government. But I do have enough of a libertarian streak in me to be appalled by authoritarian solutions to global problems. The response that is needed is more democracy and self-governance, not less. Sustainable farming and diets probably will come from the local level. I have little faith of a global governing body imposing, through taxes and bans, the one true diet to rule them all.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I completely get where you’re coming from, and I think it’s a good view point. When it comes to the subject of healthier lifestyles, eating clean foods and a lower impact on the environment, vegetarian will always be the blanket statement though. (I, personally, eat Paleo).
        Statements made like that from Lancet are said with the general population in mind. Is everyone going to suddenly become vegetarian and completely shift the way our consumer environment works? Hell no. It’ll never happen. But maybe some of them adopt “Meatles Mondays” or maybe they invest in cleaner meats produced by farmers that aren’t hurting the environment. They might eat a little more veggies and that’s really the change we can hope for.
        From a biological standpoint, those of our population that are eating unhealthier, sugar diets, are killing themselves and their children. Be it knowingly or not. The amass of fake science papers and paid for statements from big companies is killing the general population. Our top 3 causes of death in the U.S. are all preventable, basically by not eating sugar and eating clean foods.
        Do the Lancet statements come off as overbearing and borderline aggressive? Maybe. When speaking in blanket terms to the general population though, you have to speak to the least educated person in the room. Tell them to only be vegetarians. See how they adapt that into their daily lives, maybe they end up with a few extra years, and a slightly smaller carbon footprint.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t disagree with your take on the issue. But that isn’t what I took away from the EAT-Lancet report. To my mind, calling it overbearing and borderline aggressive is an understatement. They are directly advocating for dietary decisions to be made by centralized governments, such that choice is heavily manipulated or entirely eliminated. Considering big ag and big food are the backers of this project, I’m seriously concerned about the outcome of their promoting higher consumption of carbs and vegetable oils that just so happen would increase the profit margin of these very same corporate interests. I don’t feel trusting and confident in assuming either good intentions or good results. But I’m fine if the EAT-Lancet recommendations lead to better health for some people, just as long as the overall EAT-Lancet agenda of authoritarian measures fails. Not to say there isn’t a large-scale role for governments, including strong actions of intervention for global problems. It’s just in the short term, considering the political mood in the air, authoritarianism is a greater fear than even climate change.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Excuse the late reply. I’ve been under the weather lately.
        I actually think you and I have the similar opinions on this subject but that we both viewed the EAT-LANCET report differently.
        I don’t think it’s the end all be all of diets. I do think it’s a step in the right direction. Those of us educated in the area, will already know there are only 5 companies that control all the food. Monsanto being one of those monsters. I’m not doing to delve into them, I could go on for days about how horrendous their actions are.
        Looking back over their report, for myself, I focused on the whole plates shown, with half of it being filled with plants and veggies and the remaining charted out. Do I agree with the high percentage shown for “whole grains”? No, but I do like that they are slowly transitioning the general public in this regard.
        Carbs are the not enemy, meat isn’t even the enemy. The real culprit is sugar and its damages to our bodies. I honestly believe the EAT-LANCET report will most likely be tweaked again, and everyone will interpret it differently. That’s where conversations like ours are super important. I eat meat, and I eat carbs. I don’t eat sugar anymore and that’s not hard to accomodate. My macro percentages are 45% protein, 30% fat and 25% carbs. This is my perfect macro set for my time at the box and my athletic goals. And I got to this macro count by educating myself, understanding that clean foods will help me get to where I want to be and by not giving in to any donut cravings.
        At some point, people will need to start taking responsibility for their actions, and while most people know eating sugary foods will hurt them, they’re all still shocked when they get diabetes. The more we talk about the positives, more about veggies and clean proteins, and the more we support others eating healthy instead of shaming people for being on a “diet” the better off we’ll all be.

        Liked by 1 person

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