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Nutritional Sustainability: Eating for Our Health and the Planet

March 14, 2019

When we think about our diet, we most often think about how the food we eat impacts our physical health and well-being. We count calories and ensure that we’re getting enough greens, protein, and healthy omega-3s and we select, consume, and enjoy foods that fuel and energize us. However, dietary decisions are often made without considering the possible negative repercussions on Mother Nature. The human diet inextricably links health and environmental sustainability, so what if we looked beyond the potential of food to fuel us and to prevent disease to its potential to save the planet? This is where the Planetary Health Diet comes in.

Urbanization and increases in annual household income have shifted our eating patterns from traditional diets (i.e. those high in quality plant-based foods) to Western diets. Western diets are high-calorie diets with increased consumption of highly processed foods (i.e. those with added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats) and animal products. The negative health impacts of the Western diet are well-known and include an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and cancer (e.g. breast and colorectal cancers). On top of being very unhealthy for us, Western diets are also highly unsustainable.

The production of animal-based foods, such as beef, contributes a substantial amount to greenhouse gas emissions, drives climate change, causes changes to and loss of biodiversity, and contaminates and depletes freshwater resources (source). As more and more people grow conscious of how damaging meat production can be to the environment, they are choosing to follow diets that minimize or eliminate all animal-based products. In 2018, veganism or vegetarianism was practiced by almost 10% of all Canadians, almost three times the number of Canadians practicing these diets in 2003 (source).

The Planetary Health Diet is a flexitarian diet developed by scientists that is rich in plant-based foods (i.e. fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) but still allows for a modest amount of meat, fish, and dairy (source). Since meat and fish can be consumed about 3 times per week, this diet doesn’t fully restrict the consumption of animal-based foods and can be adapted to meet both cultural traditions and personal preferences. As such, the Planetary Health Diet can not only improve human health by encouraging the consumption of healthful foods, but it can also have sizeable positive impacts on the environment. By consuming fewer animal-based products, we can slow the depletion of our planet and protect our natural resources for many generations to come.

Food is the strongest lever to optimize both human health and the environment. By adopting the Planetary Health Diet, we can optimize our health and nurture the planet. Given the opportunity and resources, who wouldn’t want to do both? If you’re a healthcare professional looking to contribute to this health/food transformation, please refer to the EAT-Lancet Commission Brief for Healthcare Professionals for more information: https://eatforum.org/lancet-commission/healthcare-professionals/.

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Author

Sarah Loza

Sarah Loza is a clinical researcher with post-graduate education and training in population medicine. Sarah studied Nutrition and Nutraceutical Sciences and Nutritional Epidemiology at the University of Guelph. Sarah is passionate about health and nutrition research and knowledge translation and she enjoys contributing annually to the NRC’s Nutrition Month blogging campaign.

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