Eating EAT-Lancet: Conclusion

Estimated reading time: 16 min. For something shorter (reading time: 7 min) see "one week of eating EAT-Lancet"

And no, not eating the report (far from ideal, nutritionally). Just following the proposed new guidelines by a bunch of smart researchers for a “sustainable diet”.

It’s been a week of counting, calculating, and cleaning measuring cups, and let me tell you- it wasn’t easy at first. 

And if this is the only post you read from this series, here is a summary of the take-aways from the start.

 

  1. Eating 6 forms of animal sourced food (beef/lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy) in one day is ridiculous, and impractical (just imagine your weekly shopping list…getting anxiety just thinking about it? yeah me to).
  2. I had no concept of what a gram was (blame ignorance, or being American, or both for that matter).
  3. I straight away ignored some things (for sanity purposes). i.e the authors gave no category for coffee (but they also didn’t for water so… same thing?).
  4. I lumped things together and tried to stay within the limits for the week (eating 1/4th of an egg a day? unenjoyable and inconvenient)
  5. adjusted the numbers to bring it down to around 2000 calories a day (ball park). i.e. not everyone is an adult male.

Basically from day one I realized this diet is theoretical, and far from practical. Makes sense for academic report writing but does not for real life. So, it took some brainstorming and number crunching to translate this thing into something doable. For example, I choose to eat only one type of meat for the week (shopping for one here). And I tried to come up with a shopping list that wouldn’t make me run to the store everyday , or break the bank (because I’m a working woman with a life and an expensive travel obsession).

This diet is only a first step for sustainability. What you buy and how its produced matters. There’s way more to it than just keeping your meat intake to 300 grams a week.  Even if you do eat more meat, if its produced sustainably and you’re supporting those systems and local farmers in the process, that’s just as important. So, in addition to a shopping list, below are some links that take these extra steps.

Week One: 

Tip: Stay away from processed foods, and look for the smallest amount of ingredients. 

I tried to stick to products that had (certified) elements of sustainability: local farms, pasture raised, organic…but weren’t absurdly expensive. 

  • .5 lbs of fresh chicken
  • block of cheese (130 grams)
  • half dozen eggs
  • A bag of MSc Certified Flounder (frozen). Check the Seafood Watch App. 
  • a can of black beans, can of chickpeas
  • package of cashews
  • jar of peanut butter
  • Whole grain loaf of bread 
  • Seasonal fruit and veggies (focus on colors- esp. reds, oranges, and greens).

I was already stocked on things like whole grain rice, lentils, olive oil. I also already had some veggies from Hungry Harvest . Waste not, want not, right? 

Also for food waste- compost! As an urbanite, thankful for companies like compost cab.

Now, while day 0 consisted of me trying to figure out what a gram is (not to be confused with your mother’s mother), I did eventually get the hang of it. Good, because washing measuring cups was starting to take its toll. 

You’re days worth of legumes (black beans), nuts (cashews), and cheese.

Still, it wasn’t easy tracking things for a week. Which is why I whipped out my handy excel skills to make sure I didn’t go over my weekly limit (you say nerdy, I say smart). The stuff in red? Had a pretty hard limit, with a strict range, and unhealthy if eaten in large amounts. The green stuff? I wasn’t worried about going over because the range was pretty wide. The yellow items were those that needed to be watched.

Thankfully I was able to stock my fridge with exactly what I needed for the week. Shopping and stocking up in this way made it a lot easier for 1) cooking and 2) the anxiety.

Still, no one’s perfect, and I went over my weeks worth of eggs, fish, and legumes. Really? Legumes? Turns out while many are saying that this diet dramatically increases your intake of legumes- if you’re used to having them as part of your diet, it’s really not that much. I didn’t even eat them everyday.

For fish…the flounder fillets I got (sustainable sourced obviously) were prepackaged separately (yes, I know, plastic pollution… not everything is a win-win). For me, I needed about 2-3 fillets a week… so you either overeat your weekly amount or under-eat. Which just shows how hard it is to make this thing practical.

Finally, the most shocking thing about this diet was the amount given for eggs. As a vegetarian, I was eating a good amount of eggs. This diet? It’s about 2 large eggs EVERY 10 DAYS. See, I would much rather eat less meat, and have more eggs. Which is something I always considered more “sustainable”, especially since eggs are fairly easy to find locally compared to meat- where locally produced often comes with more stringent regulations in the US (and a hefty price).

On that note, one thing the authors could have done is offer a few different “reference diets” for different dietary trends: flexitarian (current), vegetarian, and vegan. These other diets exist, and are becoming ever more popular. Ya girl needs her protein, and what if I want to get all of it from plants? 

And what about substitutes? (Step away from the almond milk, that stuff takes up SO MUCH WATER). So oat milk? Or coconut milk? Is a coconut actually a fruit or a nut? The internet can’t even decide. Quinoa is apparently a seed? What do I do with that and these other popularized millennial items? Specificity comes with obligations, EAT-Lancet. See Critiques and Solutions for more.

Some of these decisions I avoided. I put aside the coconut milk and quinoa and stuck to the classics, like cheese, bread, and rice. Other things I ignored, like coffee/tea and spices. A couple other things I tried to adhere too or incorporate, and failed…. But did you know that there is about 30g of grain in a pint of beer, or 200g of grapes in a glass of wine? At least I tried. See this post on... sustainable alcohol consumption? To our collective dismay, alcohol does take resources to produce.

All in all, once I moved past the quizzical looks of my roommates as I obsessively measured every ingredient, or shooed away wandering hands trying to cut into my perfectly measured amount of cheese (my tolerance for sharing definitely went down), I realized I was absolutely eating healthier. Mainly because I was actually paying attention to the amount of servings I was getting of each food group.

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? Just try googling it, and dig yourself a deep internet rabbit hole while you’re at it.

Still, the biggest downside of this EAT-Lancet report is that it seems to recommend a diet built on our current, highly destructive, food system. A specific recommendation for palm oil? Really? And while the approach the authors took makes sense for modeling, frameworks, academics, yadda yadda…it still fails to embark on the question: what kind of food system could we have instead? Which, admittedly, is a whole other report and modeling exercise in itself. The authors do recognize the diversity of contexts, 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.

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 portion of meat from grass-fed beef, instead of getting it largely from poultry…which would probably have to use large amounts of grain that directly competes with human diets? Even if all your meat for the week came in the form of unprocessed red meat, the total is so small that it probably won’t impact your health, even long term (any nutritionists out there? help?).

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Wait, hold up…I’m saying beef is ok? Well, at current levels of production- it’s not. Unfortunately only 5% of the US market for beef is grassfed, and the rest emit A TON (see post on exactly how many tons).

So, I think the totals are totally  doable (.5lbs- 2/3 lbs of meat a week). A half gallon of milk. 2-3 frozen fish fillet’s a week. 2 eggs every 10 days? still a little testy about that one. But overall, as a flexitarian diet for someone that still want’s to eat meat/fish 2-3 times a week, or not give up cheese, its great. 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 for flexitarians, 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. One thing’s certain- the answer lies in the grey, and it will meet both human and environmental health goals. Where in that gray area? Well, that one depends on… you guessed it, 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.

US Beef- Let’s talk emissions.

There’s been a lot of push back from the EAT-Lancet report. Especially from the meat industry, but also from a lot of meat-friendly US citizens. This is not surprising of course, and it makes sense- their industry and way of life is under attack, and it’s natural to get defensive. Often, the argument goes that the United States beef sector only contributes a small percentage to US emissions. However, there’s already several faults in that comparison.

  • EAT-Lancet is a global analysis, not focused on the United States (guys, its not always all about us)
  • EAT-Lancet focuses on all environmental impacts of the food system, not just GHG emissions, and not just livestock (i.e, land degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, nutrient pollution, water use, over-fishing, etc.). Though livestock is a big part.

Here’s a sentence from EAT-Lancet: “Food production is the largest source of environmental degradation, and has the greatest effect on the Earth System.” Period. Talk about a wake-up call.

And while the report has some major drawbacks, the main message of “eat less meat, eat more plants” couldn’t be more clear. And correct. Emissions aside (14.5% of global carbon emissions), livestock- of all agricultural sectors- is the largest contributor to deforestation (land conversion to pasture), biodiversity loss, and nutrient pollution. This is both directly, and indirectly through crop production used to feed livestock.

But alright, people want to focus on emissions. Let’s. The most complete (and recent) analysis I’ve seen of livestock in the United States is of the beef industry. This study found the beef sector emits 243 Tg CO2e (CO2 equivalent- aka all carbon emissions, including methane, etc.). Or 3.7% of US emissions.

Cattle represent 65% of livestock sector emissions, according to FAO. This is a global estimate but let’s say that reigns true for the United States. This puts total US livestock emissions at 374 TgCO2e, or 5.7% of total US emissions.

Yes, true, that seems small..but don’t forget, the US emits a lot. TONS. 6,511 tons CO2eq to be exact. With a population of 325.7 million, that’s 20 tons per person a year. That’s almost 3 times the global average: 7.2 tons per person. If the average US citizen emitted the same as the world average, that 5.7% would increase to 16%. Pretty significant.

Now these are rough estimates, but it shows how the story changes depending on how you look at the numbers. Sure, 5.7% of US emissions seems small but not when you compare to how much the United States emits in total.

Another argument is that cattle can do great things, especially in the United States where we have huge amounts of grazing land. And when sustainably managed, they can restore the soil, promote biodiversity, and provide valuable forms of nutrition where crops wouldn’t be able to grow. All facts, and good things. This is especially true of developing countries, where a lot of poor would greatly benefit- both in livelihood and nutrition- from increased production of meat, especially these kinds of systems.

However, since grass-fed beef only constitutes 5% of the US market, this “cattle do great things for the environment” argument cannot be used in favor maintaining levels of US beef production. Cattle can do good in theory, yes. But at current numbers, the destruction far outweighs any kind of environmental or health benefit.

So for now, skip the beef. And if you just have to have that steak, buy in small quantities and most importantly from local farmers and ranchers who are using sustainable grazing methods and maintaining the health of their land- they need the support.