Estimated reading time: 7 min
Not eating the report of course- that would be far from ideal, nutritionally.
I spent one week eating a new diet that -according to recently published guidelines- claim to be both good for your health and the planet. Published in mid-January, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report Food in the Anthropocene opened the floodgates for the debate on what a sustainable diet would mean in terms of both planet and nutrition.
Commended by some and heavily criticized by others, it nonetheless has sparked a critical conversation: how do we eat so that we meet our nutritional needs but don’t destroy the planet in the process (and die)? Important question.
Well, I decided to take these guidelines (given in grams by category) and try it out for a week. It’s been a week of counting, calculating, and cleaning measuring cups, and let me tell you- it wasn’t easy.
From the start I realized this diet is theoretical, and far from practical. It makes sense for academic report writing but it does not for real life. From the top, I had struggles in trying to translate these guidelines into something doable for the week. For example, eating 6 forms of animal sourced food (beef/lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy) in one day is ridiculous, and impractical. I chose to stick to only one type of meat for the week. Second, I had no concept of what a gram was…blame ignorance, or being American, or both for that matter. Also, not everything had a category i.e. what do I do with my precious coffee? I also had to adjust the numbers down because the 2,500 calorie diet is given for an adult male, of which only one of those is true.
After some serious number crunching and brainstorming, I came up with a shopping list that wouldn’t make me run to the store everyday, or break the bank. Still, it wasn’t easy tracking things for a week. I took to an excel spreadsheet to make sure that even if I went over the limit for a day, I stayed within the limit for a week. This is because eating 1/4th of an egg a day not only leaves you wanting more, its also inconvenient. Thankfully I was able to figure out the quantities for the week and stock my fridge with exactly what I needed. This was made it a lot easier for 1) cooking and 2) the anxiety.
However, no one’s perfect and I went over my week’s worth of eggs, fish and legumes. Turns out that the increase in legumes is really not that much. And buying cuts of meat or fish to stay within the limit was difficult, which demonstrates how hard it is to make this thing practical. And finally eggs. According to the guidelines, it’s about 2 large eggs every 10 days. As a vegetarian who was eating a lot of eggs before going on this adventure, this was probably the hardest part. And also unusual, because I always considered eating eggs to be more “sustainable”. This highlights a major flaw of the guidelines…how you source your food is critical when it comes to sustainability. This diet is far from being a “catch all”. Where I live, I know buying eggs produced locally and sustainability is a lot easier (and cheaper) than buying meat sourced the same way.
Another drawback of the report is not offering substitutes, or offering different “diets” generally. While, giving a decent framework for flexitarians, vegetarian and vegan diets exist and are growing in popularity. Also, there are a lot of coffee and tea drinkers out in the world… and to our collective dismay coffee does take resources to make…and is it better to buy processed plant milk or locally produced, sustainability raised dairy? These are tough questions, and made for substituting things like milk challenging, and had me questioning many of my food choices and their respective “sustainability”.
All in all, I realized I was absolutely eating healthier- mostly because I was paying extremely close attention to hitting the marks for all food groups. There are critics that say this diet isn’t nutritionally perfect. And you know, maybe it isn’t. But whose diet actually is? Trying to eat a diet that is nutritionally perfect is just as theoretical as it is impractical. There is no doubt that if everyone ate according to these guidelines, or any well-meaning guidelines based on nutritional science, diet-related health issues would dramatically decrease. Because, what is a healthy diet anyway? Try googling it, and dig yourself a deep internet rabbit hole while you’re at it.
The biggest downside of this EAT-Lancet report is that it seems to recommend a diet built on our current, highly destructive, food system i.e. a specific recommendation for palm oil. And while the approach the authors took makes sense for academia…it still fails to embark on the question: what kind of food system could we have instead? Which, admittedly, is probably a whole different kind of study. The authors do recognize the importance of context and the need for diverse production systems and solutions- of course, sustainability is highly context specific. Yet they recognize this, while giving a highly prescriptive diet with limited ranges and no substitutes. This diet is hardly sustainable if not applied in context, and as it stands it does not provide enough room to adapt.
The diet is only a first step for sustainability. What you buy and how it’s produced matters. There’s much more to it than just keeping your meat intake to 300 grams a week, or switching to vegan. Those highly processed vegan corn dogs are probably not great for the environment…you’d be better off buying sustainably produced, pasture-raised beef from your local farmer. These extra steps like buying local, buying within season, paying attention to certifications like organic or sustainably sourced, humanely raised, etc. all are critical steps for sustainability. It’s not just about what you switch your diet to, but how you go about it that counts.
For example, let’s say a country’s agricultural wealth was in its grasslands. The whole western US is covered in rangelands that are suitable for grazing cattle (since we killed off all the buffalo). Would it not make sense then, to get our small portion of meat from grass-fed beef, instead of getting it largely from poultry…which would likely use large amounts of grain that directly competes with human diets? Its important to emphasize a small portion is key here- only 5% of the US beef market is grass-fed. That means we still need to greatly scale back consumption while increasing sustainable forms of production. The verdict is not yet out on small forms of red meat consumption, which the report admits to. Furthermore, a recent study shows that mixed-diets may actually be very beneficial, as long as you stay away from processed meats.
As a flexitarian diet, the diet is doable: 2/3 lbs of meat, a half gallon of milk. 2-3 frozen fish fillet’s a week. 2 eggs every 10 days (still unsure about this last one). But overall, for someone that wants to eat meat and fish 2-3 times a week, or not give up cheese, they’re decent guidelines. But only if summed up at category level and then applied to context- not as currently written. And while it’s great modeling exercise providing a framework, the report is still rooted in a global context- which is not how diets should work. Diets should be based on what you have available, what’s in season, what’s local, and obviously on your nutritional needs.
So should nutrition drive what we produce? Or should our resources? A huge gray area lies in between those two questions. And the answer lies in the gray, meeting both human and environmental health goals. Finding that sweet spot? Well, that one depends on context. And sooner or later we will find it- thankfully we humans are extremely innovative and adaptive… But let’s find it sooner, rather than later.