How the Flexitarian Diet Aims to Save Earth Before It’s Too Late

Photo: Getty Images/Luxy Images
When it comes to saving the planet, carrying around a metal straw in your pocket isn't going to cut it. Don't get me wrong, keep drinking from reusable water bottles and bringing your own tote bags to the grocery store—cumulatively, small efforts can often have a big impact. But if Earth is to remain habitable, we need a global commitment to far-reaching change. In a new report published by The Lancet, an international group of 37 scientists from 16 different countries has revealed the "planetary health diet," a brand new eating plan three years in the making that boasts substantial evidence to prove its potential effectiveness. In short, they're describing it as a way to save Earth before it's too late.

A team of experts in human health, political sciences, agriculture, environmental sustainability warns that humans, in particular, need to change the way they eat in dramatic form. With the global population predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050—3 billion of whom are already malnourished—those changes need to be made now if we're to prevent food production from "overstepping environmental targets, driving climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution," reports CNN.

By reinventing the way we produce and consume food, society as a whole can begin to cut down on destruction it does to the environment. Food systems are the "main user of fresh water, a leading driver of biodiversity loss, land-use change and cause eutrophication or dead zones in lakes and coastal areas," explains the EAT-Lancet Commission. By changing people's diets and how food is produced—especially meat and dairy, which are two of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions—it might just be possible to reduce carbon emissions and stop hurting the planet.

The planetary health diet therefore aims to help people eat better while at the same time creating a more sustainable world. Here's exactly how we're going to save Earth by changing the way we eat, according to science:

Photo: EAT-Lancet Commission

3 things you should know about the planetary health diet

1. It's a plant-based diet

No surprise here. The planetary health diet all but entirely nixes meat from the equation. Meals on the plan are built around vegetables, fruits, and nuts while cutting down significantly on animal protein and sugar. By doing this, researchers believe people can decrease their risks of several life-threatening diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In fact, according to the EAT-Lancet Commission, "unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined."

A plant-based diet can also greatly help the environment. Aside from impacting the climate and threatening ecosystem resilience, global food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation. In the case of meat production, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found red meat creates up to 40 times more greenhouse gas emissions than healthier alternatives, like vegetables and grains. The expansion of cattle ranching is the primary cause of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest. In the United States, it requires 149 million acres of cropland to feed the nation's livestock. "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million," ecologist David Pimentel told Scientific American. Of course, people don't eat the same quality grain as can be fed to cattle, but the question remains: What would happen if we directed the resources now being used to raise livestock to feed humans instead?

2. You can actually eat more, not less

The typical daily recommended calorie intake for women is about 2,000, but the planetary health diet ups that recommendation to 2,500. The bulk of that count—as shown above—would be veggies, fruit, whole grains, and plant-sourced protein (like legumes and nuts), with small amounts of added sugar, starchy veggies, dairy, eggs, and animal-sourced protein. According to the report, you can think of it as a "flexitarian" diet, which is largely plant-based but might include some fish, meat, and dairy.

"Eating the best balance of calories from a mix of mostly plant proteins, mostly unsaturated fats, and from carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables along with a variety of non-starchy vegetables is the standard recommendation for the general population," says Margaret Mangan, RD, of University of North Carolina REX Healthcare. "It's widely known that the energy needed to produce the equivalent amount of calories from meat is higher and creates a greater carbon footprint—certainly at the industrial meat production level. Plant-based meal plans have the potential to meet one's needs at a lower environmental and economic cost."

But why the 500-calorie increase? Using preexisting research on the optimal daily energy intake of men and women—currently about 2,800 calories and 2,000 respectively—the study suggests that 2,500 meets the average energy needs of a 154-pound man or 132-pound woman, both 30 years old, with moderate to high levels of physical activity. But that's a general recommendation for the population. Your exact calorie count will need to be personalized.

"A daily limit of 2,500 calories is more of a 'one size fits all' approach that needs to be tailored to the individual," Mangan explains. "Calories are unique to each individual and are based on many factors, including: activity, lifestyle, age, gender, and any current medical conditions. Eating within one’s required calorie range will help that person maintain weight, promote optimal athletic performance, and in many cases, prevent and/or delay many comorbidities."

3. It won't be easy

In order to get on a sustainable track by 2050, one that prioritizes human health and the environment, a substantial dietary shift is required. "Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50 percent," said lead study author Walter Willett, MD, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. If we're successful, he says, some 11 million deaths caused by unhealthy food choices could be prevented every year.

There also needs to be a major change to our agricultural efforts, according to the EAT-Lancet Commission, which requires refocusing the land that's already being used for food—not accumulating more of it. In part, the plan calls for implementing a "zero-expansion policy of new agricultural land into natural ecosystems and species-rich forests, aiming management policies at restoring and reforesting degraded land, and establishing international land use governance mechanisms. Additionally, it will be necessary to improve "the management of the world’s oceans to ensure that fisheries don't negatively impact ecosystems, fish stocks are utilized responsibly, and global aquaculture production is expanded sustainably."

If everyone gets on board, there's a real chance at a viable future for our planet. It starts with you.

Check out this plant-based protein battle between tofu and tempeh. Or, check out the plant-based ingredient your skin might love even more than retinol

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