PLANETARY HEALTH: The good, the bad, and the diet solution

How can you make the biggest change to shrink your environmental footprint? By what you’re putting in your mouth! Wanting to get or stay healthy in the meantime? You are in the right place with the right dietitian today!

To read more for yourself on the following, see the research article ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’.

The good:
Increasing crop yields and improving production practices have
contributed to reductions in hunger, improved life expectancy, falling infant and child mortality rates, and decreased global poverty. Translation: BIG wins all around!

The bad:
Rapid urbanization, increasing incomes, and inadequate accessibility of nutritious foods have led to global shifts to unhealthy diets that are high in calories and heavily-processed and animal source foods. Translation: Things have changed pretty drastically in the last several decades for those of us in high-income countries. On the other hand, so many people are still food insecure or don’t have access to the healthy foods we all require for healthy lives.

The solution:
Planetary health boundaries include the total global amount of cropland use, biodiversity loss, water use, greenhouse-gas emissions, and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that can be due to food production, which can be improved by change in diet (to reference diet – planetary health diet) and change in food production systems. Translation: Basically, our current food production system needs a huge overhaul because the way we make food right now is causing some major stress on mother Earth. That starts with our diets and other systemwide changes. According to the report and its many citations we can’t continue at this rate or we may not all live to see the next century.

Report focuses:
1. Final consumption (healthy diets), 2. Food production (sustainable food production

Most of us in the US and dietitians can help with changes in final consumption. Farmers, advocates for changes in government and food policies, environmental scientists, food scientists, and even chefs can help with food production.

Considering I am a dietitian, my focus primarily lies in the area #1 – food consumption. And that is how I strive to help you, my reader who I am so thankful is here right now – whether a dietitian, advocate for healthy eating, or food consumer (aka everyone, so spread the word!).

“Food systems are comprised of all the elements (eg, environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, and institutions) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food.” – EAT-Lancet report ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’

So where does that leave you to help?
Mainly in preparation and consumption of food – by choosing whole foods with minimal processing, few animal products, even fewer red meats and refined grains/sugars, and by eating the food you buy versus letting it go bad and go to waste.

Curious about how you can also help with the food production side of things? You can help by buying local, organic, and in-season foods. Also, did you know there are ___ species of edible plants? Go ahead and pick up a few odd varieties of your fave veggies too, which helps promote biodiversity. Vote with your money, honey!

So planetary health diet, what is it exactly? Some factors (eg, age, sex, disease state, exercise) may set you apart from the suggested serving sizes below, but more or less your average day should go something like this:

If you have a food scale handy, super! Of you’re like the 99% of people who don’t, here is a breakdown of the diet NOT in the metric system:

Whole grain rice/wheat/corn/other grain: 8 oz precooked weight (other measurements vary per grain eaten)
Potatoes or cassava*: 2 oz (1/4 cup)
All vegetables*: 11 oz
Dark green veg: 4 oz (~2 cups)
Red and orange veg: 4 oz (1/2-1 cup)
Other veg: 4 oz (1/2-1 cup)
All fruit*: 7 oz (3/4-1 cup)
Whole milk*: 8 oz (1 cup) or dairy equivalent varies (1 oz cheese, 5 oz yogurt for example)
Beef/lamb*: 0.25 oz
Pork*: 0.25 oz
Chicken/other poultry*: 1 oz
Egg*: 0.5 oz (about 1/6 an egg)
Fish/shellfish*: 1 oz (farmed or wild caught)
Dry beans/lentils/peas*: 2 oz
Soy foods*: 1 oz
Peanuts*: 1 oz
Tree nuts: 1 oz
Palm oil: 1 tsp
Unsaturated oils*: 1.5 tbsp
Lard or tallow: 1 tsp
All sweeteners: 1 oz (8 tsp)

*upper limits for some foods to provide higher end of calorie needs (up to 2500 calories/day)

The following are upper limits of each food group NOT in the metric system measurements:

Potatoes or cassava: up to 4 oz (1/2 cup)
All vegetables: up to 21 oz (with 4 oz each of dark green, red/orange, and other veg)
Fruit: up to 11 oz
Whole milk: up to 16 oz (2 cups) or dairy equivalent (2 oz cheese, 10 oz yogurt for example)
Beef/lamb: up to 0.5 oz
Pork: up to 0.5 oz
Chicken/poultry: up to 2 oz
Egg: up to 1 oz (about 1/3 an egg)
Fish/shellfish: up to 4 oz (farmed or wild caught)
Dry beans/lentils/peas: up to 4 oz
Soy foods: up to 2 oz
Peanuts: up to 3 oz
Unsaturated oils: up to 3 tbsp

Other diet notes:
Many foods are exchangeable for one another, as seen below:
– Beef/lamb exchangeable for pork and vice versa
– Chicken/poultry exchangeable with eggs, fish, and plant protein sources
– Legumes, peanuts, tree nuts, seeds, and soy are interchangeable
Unsaturated oils should include equal parts of each: olive, soybean, rapeseed, sunflower, and peanut oil.
Lard and tallow are optional when pig/cattle are consumed as to put each part of the animal to use, as this can provide energy from fat.

Any food can be eliminated for allergy, religious, personal preference, or preferred dietary pattern like vegan, etc. I don’t recommend eliminate whole food groups like vegetables or grains because they have many health benefits and make up a big part of this diet!

Notes about foods not included in the planetary health diet:

The suggested reference diet did not give ranges for foods like refined grains, salt, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, spices and herbs, plants considered as seafood, insects, consumed amphibians/reptiles, and other unique animals not typically consumed worldwide (things like bison, alligator, rabbit, etc). But some of these foods may be regional or specific to smaller percentages of the global population.

The report touched on insect consumption as a more environmentally friendly protein swap for meat but its questionable if all populations would be open to eating insects regularly. Some traditional diets include regular consumption of insects and have throughout history. However, insects haven’t been well studied for their effects on health either. There have been a few studies showing health benefits of cricket consumption but there are a bunch of other bugs that need more looking into before general recs can be made for everyone.

Algae and in-vitro meat were briefly brought up in the report in the spectrum of potential protein sources but without much detail. Algae contains omega-3 fats, is high in protein, and some varieties are consumed by some people. You can find algae in capsules sold as omega-3 supplements in the US (vegan omega-3 alternative to fish oil omega-3 supplements). In-vitro meat is still pretty far off from popularity and even availability as it is super expensive and newly developed.

So there you have it! Now you know the scoop on the diet being promoted to the whole world.

Want to take your tree-hugging, ocean-saving, animal-loving skills to the next level? Follow these tips:

1. Drink water – out of the tap if it’s safe and in your own reusable bottle.
2. Bring your own reusable produce and grocery bags to the store when you go shopping for food. Or Mason jars if you’re fancy.
3. Shop in the bulk section and fill your own bags/containers.
4. Try to buy condiments, snacks, dried goods, sauces, etc in glass jars, cardboard boxes, paper bags, or tin cans. Or compostable packaging if you’re really lucky.
5. Try your hand at making your own condiments, sauces, snacks, etc to reduce buying in packaging.
6. Buy only what you need so food doesn’t go bad.
7. Plan your meals before you shop to prevent food waste.
8. Pass on grocery delivery services so you can practice many of the tips I just listed above.
9. Bring your own cup or container for to-go foods/drinks if you eat out.
10. Try to dine-in if you eat out. Ordering food to go uses LOADS of plastic packaging.
11. Buy at farmers markets first, then at grocery stores.
12. Buy local, organic, and in-season.
13. Buy new varieties of the foods you normally buy, like a different breed of squash or tomatoes.
14. Buy the “ugly” or “wonky” produce because chances are not many other people will buy it (leading to higher chances it’ll be thrown out) and it tastes the same anyway.
15. Eat your leftovers.
16. If you can’t eat your leftovers in time, freeze them to eat for another day or give them to someone who will be happy to eat them
17. Try to compost. I hope to be able to do this one day!
18. Feed appropriate leftovers to animals who can eat them (chickens, pigs, cattle, dogs, rodents, etc).

You can only do your best, but the world needs all that you can do!

Written by Stacy Ramirez, MS, RDN, LD


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