If we were to believe the EatLancet report, a diet that would be good for our health, good for the planet, and would be sustainable enough to feed 10 billion people, would have look something like the table below.
There are multiple problems with the ideas proposed. At first, it might seem logical that with a growing population that we should move to foods that put less of a strain on the planet, take up less land, use less water and don't stress the environment as much, and a supperficial look at the proposed diet might have us think they are on to something, and that the diet proposed might actually be healthy. But let's look closer.
- 32.4% grain
- 20.0% added fats
- 11.6% nuts
- 11.3% legumes
- 6.1% dairy
- 5.0% fruit
- 4.8% added sugar
- 3.7% meat
- 3.1 vegetables
- 1.6% fish
- 1.6% potatoes
- 0.8% eggs
For health, let's focus on these four first:
- 32.4% grain
- 20.0% added fats
- 11.3% legumes
- 4.8% added sugar
That is 68.5% of calories from non whole-foods and foods that while not always industrially processed, require substantial at-home processing to make edible. 68.5% of calories also from foods that are produced by large scale mono cropping. The whole proposed diet looks like the ingredients list for something half-way between Twinkies and a Protein Meal Bar.
But then, not really surprising if we look at the companies behind the Eat Lancet initiative.
As far as the environment is concerned, there are multiple problems with mono cropping, and thus with the proposed diet:
- Fertilizer wash-out
- Herbicides and the environmental dangers of GMO
Red tide, the threat of pollinator extinction, the health and environmental dangers from the GMO/herbicides combo. I want to argue these issues combined form a greater load to the environment than the nutritional attribution to global warming.
Could it be fixed?
I want to argue that a sustainable diet should aim to minimize mono cropping, minimize fertilizer usage, GMO, herbicides and pesticides. I also want to argue that from a health perspective, unprocessed and minimally processed foods, not grains, legumes, sugar and added fats are key.
The diet EatLancet proposes, as it seems will neither serve the planet nor our health.
Let us see if we can do better with an old-fashioned food pyramid.
Start at the middle: Free range meat, mostly ruminant.
Normally discussion of a food pyramid would start at the bottom. In this one though, because we also want to look at the environment and land usage is a prime factor to environmental impact. Where the plant based narrative tries to place focus on the total amount of land needed for meat production, it conveniently ignores the fact that free-range ruminants are often an important part of a semi-autonomous ecosystem. That is, if you ascribe to us humans the role that normally a predator would take, humans become part of a functional ecosystems in what ruminants play a crucial role. Take away the ruminants and pastures that on many parts of the world would have been the natural state of nature in prehistoric times, many of these lands would turn into forests and desserts. From a health perspective, recent years, despite continued attempts by vegan propagandists, the narrative against meat from a health perspective has crumbled. We know now that dietary cholesterol isn't in fact bad, that the role of saturated fat in CVD has long been exaggerated at best, and might either not even exist, or only be there in the context of a diet high in ultra-processed carbohydrates. Whole unprocessed meat is an important part of a healthy, mostly whole food human diet that is in line with our ancestral heritage.
Today almost one third of mono crop production is used for feeding livestock. The land used for those mono crops would, for the sake of the environment, be better off being converted (back) to pastures. In fact, turning more than one third of mono crop land back to the often natural pasture state is likely a very good idea.
One down: Eating head-to-tail, dairy and fish.
It is silly really how many edible parts of livestock don't end up in the food chain for human consumption, especially in some of the countries with the highest meat consumption. Eating head to tail, eating oval, bone marrow and broth, beef dripping, etc could compensate for the lower production caused by abandoning the feeding of fertilizer/GMO/herbicides/pesticides heavy mono crops to livestock.
Further down: Herbs, spices and nutritionally dense veggies
Plants aren't all bad. In fact, some of the healthiest foods in the world are plant based and many of the most healthy and nutrient dense plant have a relatively low environmental footprint. The plant based part of the foundation of our nutritional pyramid consists of nutrient dense herbs, spices and vegetables. Vegetables with low nutrient density such as lettuce are off limits given their per nutritional value footprint is worse even than CAFO sourced meat.
A new foundation: Low footprint non-plant non-vertebrae staples
While head to tail vertebrae animals nutrient dense plant foods add great value to our dietary pyramid, removing much of the fertilizer/pesticides/herbicides/GMO intensive mono crops from our diet for health and environmental concerns leaves us with a bit of a problem with respect to land usage. If we really want a food pyramid that could feed 10 billion people, we will need to add quite a bit more calories in another ways with minimal usage of precious land resources. To accomplish this, we need to look at adding a layer to the very bottom of our pyramid where most of the foods we add should have a minimal land footprint. Both insects and mushrooms should probably be good candidates for filling this gap. Today, a large portion of food produces is wasted, and both insects and mushrooms can be part of an infrastructure that taps into these waste streams, both at a minimum land footprint. But not just these two, we need to look at the whole spectrum of invertebrate animals and fungi. These hardly tapped into food sources combine a relatively low land usage with the possibility to turn waste streams into food. Not just food waste, but also, for example organic construction waste, organic packaging waste take care of some logistics can in theory be diverted to the production of some of these foods.
Layer five: nuts & berries
So how about seeds, nuts and fruit? It is important to realize that many popular fruits are neither particularly healthy, nor environmentally friendly. Bananas for example require many types of pesticides and contains a relatively high amount of sugar for the nutrients they provide. Nuts come with their own environmental impact concerns, but have unmistakable health benefits. Given that we are approaching the top of our pyramid, adding nuts and berries as nutrient dense foods that add real value to our pyramid should be a good idea.
Layer six: grains, seeds and pulses
Almost at the top at our pyramid we now arrive at the types of foods that we should be eating only in moderation. We also, at this point arrive at the foods Eat Lancet would have us put at the base of our pyramid. Pulses, grains, seeds and tubers.
Candy, soda and sweat fruits.
The top of our pyramid, foods we should only eat now and then as a treat, consists of obvious foods like candy, pastry and soda, but also, and this may com as a bit of a surprise, sweet fruits like bananas and mango's, and juices made from these fruits.
I'm an engineer who for personal health battles takes an interest in nutrition. I am not a nutritionist or a doctor. Next to this the above pyramid is just a rough draft of a model that I believe requires substantial research to truly figure out. Research though that the Eat Lancet initiative could and should have done if their goal had been as they claim. This post is meant mainly to make you consider the underlying additional concerns that Eat Lancet, conveniently for many of the companies behind their initiative, failed to take into consideration. So don't start eating according the described pyramid without either doing your own research and N=1 experiments, or consulting a professional with the proper credentials first. I hope though the above will at least make you hesitate about taking the plant-based mono-crop-heavy Eat Lancet narrative at face value.