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.

Eating Eat-Lancet: The Roots

Eating Eat-Lancet

Nutrition, aka how we get our nutrients to be healthy, cannot be removed from how those nutrients are produced. Far too often we look at nutrition and food production in isolation. So backwards. That would be like trying to diagnose a disease without looking at the symptoms. Tracking down a criminal without looking at the evidence. Trying to pass an exam without understanding the material. You get it.

As environmental threats and limitations increasingly put stress on our food system, we have to look at the kind of healthy diet we can have while also having a planet. As the population grows, it increases demands on the food system. So, we need to think about how much food, and in what quantities, we can sustainably feed the world and also meet nutritional requirements. This is what the EAT-Lancet report attempts to address, and it’s the first attempt of its kind.

Nonetheless, while a commendable effort, it has it’s issues- just like any “first” does. Some argue that the recommendations are too specific. And while they give ranges, this is a valid concern. Some argue that the diet is nutritionally deficient. Nonetheless- due to the global problems of obesity, hunger, and malnourishment-one can argue that if everyone ate according to these guidelines, many of these health issues would be solved. Even with a diet that isn’t perfect nutritionally. Because what is a healthy diet? There’s still a lot we don’t know.

Still, an example. This diet isn’t always sustainable when it comes to the vilification of red meat compared to poultry, something that doesn’t always reign true.  Cattle grazed under good management can provide valuable nutrition and restore the land, with more sustainable practices than industrial poultry production- which uses feed that could otherwise be fed to people.

Still, the main message of the report “eat less meat, eat more plants” is clear, and its what we should be doing.

However, eating sustainable is highly context specific. It really depends on where you live, what you have access to, and what you can afford. Its highly country and regionally specific. For example, if a country’s land wealth is in its grasslands, having more red meat in your diet than poultry- which would have to be produced industrially- would probably be better for the environment. So let’s say you stick to the recommended 43 g/day of meat, and all of that came from unprocessed red-meat. This is still likely a small enough amount that would be far from risking your health (though if there are any nutritionists out there reading this, please weigh in).

So, this journey is a goal to roughly translate these recommendations listed in the EAT-Lancet report, into a “sustainable diet”, but one that is based on context, in this case Washington, D.C. That being said, the plan is to take the ranges given in the report and apply them to what’s available- working to meet all nutritional requirements. The next post in this series, Day 0, gives more of a breakdown on what this will look like.

2 End goals:

  1. Use this journey to create a guide that helps others eat sustainably, within their own contexts.
  2. Allow for a discussion on how to eat for both nutrition and the planet.

9 Rules of Thumb

9 Rules of Thumb for a Sustainable Diet

Many of these will be explored in later posts. 

  1. Local is sustainable.
  2. Certified is better than conventional.
  3. Research certifications and labels.
  4. Seasonality is important.
  5. Cut back on meat.
  6. Reduce your waste.
  7. Know food safety.
  8. Think how your choices impact change.
  9. Be aware of food policy.

It’s important to note that these are “rules of thumb” not rules of law. These are based on research, expert opinions, and common themes. Even so,hey won’t apply always, everywhere.

See something important that’s missing? Don’t agree? Please comment! These are not set in stone, and will likely change and evolve!

Here’s diving into each one a little deeper with explanations and tips.

1. Local is sustainable

  • Local is almost always more sustainable, while food labelled or with certifications might not always be.
  • Local is becoming easier to access- many grocery stores are starting to offer local products if you don’t have access to a farmers markets.
  • Tip: want to enjoy those farmers market strawberries come winter time? Freeze them! They’ll be good for 12 months.

2. Certified is better than conventional

  • When you can’t buy local, a certified product is typically better than its conventionally produced counterpart.
  • Not all certifications are created equal. See the blog post on labels and certifications, and when they’re better than conventional and when they aren’t always

for these first two, see “local vs sustainable” post

3. Research certifications and labels.

  • Many labels don’t require certifications- if you are buying based off of those it’s critical to do the research.
  • In the works are some tools that assess some of these certifications, and where they stand in terms of sustainability.

4. Seasonality is important.

  • Focusing on the types of foods you’re eating alone can improve sustainability, instead of certifications/labels that are often expensive and confusing.
  • Seasonality can be big, and even shopping regionally can promote sustainability and the domestic economy. If something is not in season, buy frozen. This can still support local or regional farmers- as they often freeze what ripens on farm or if they have too much.
  • This rule of thumb is also critical for fish, as healthy fish stocks change rapidly, across seasons and regions of the world.
  • If you can, pay attention to the company- and do a quick google of their production practices. Are they in the news for doing some terrible things? Better to avoid.

5. Cut back on meat.

  • Cutting back or giving up meat is often the single most impactful thing you can do when trying to improve the environmental impact of your diet, and improves your health
  • However, it’s important to pay attention to what you’re replacing it with.
  • Also replacing beef with poultry or pork can reduce your environmental impact, but to a lesser extent.

6. Reduce your waste.

  • Bring grocery and produce bags to the store, use Tupperware and reusable bottles, compost food waste.

7.  Know food safety.

  • If you know you want have time to make something- know when you can freeze it. Or if you’re full and something is going bad, cook it up anyway and put it in the fridge or freezer.
  • Use by/sell by dates are confusing. Use your senses! They most often will tell you if its good or Localbad. Of course, if you’re still uncertain toss it (hopefully in the compost).

8. Think how your choices impact change.

  • Actively think about how your food was produced, who produced it, and where did it come from. This bit of reflection before putting something in your shopping cart can make a huge difference.
  • Be conscious of the decisions you’re making, and if they’re going towards the sustainable food systems you want to see. For example, cutting back on meat is good for the environment but if you’re just replacing that with intensively produced soy- you’re not thinking about system change.

9. Be aware of food policy.

  • Many governments have local food policy or agricultural policy councils: subscribe to their mailing lists, go to a meeting, or get involved.
  • Do you know the Farm Bill? It’s the single most influential agricultural legislation in the US. Call your congressmen & congresswomen and let them know it’s important!

 

Local vs Sustainable

(estimated reading time: 6-7 min)

Not the first thing you typically want to do but let’s just really quickly go over a couple definitions.

  • Local food: grown close to where you buy and consume it.
  • Sustainable food: low impact on the environment, respects workers

The two are not always the same. Local food can also be produced with harsh chemicals and environmentally destructive practices, while “sustainable” food may not be produced close to where you are.

Plot twist: while “sustainable” food, even when travelling far, can sometimes still be sustainable, local farms will almost always be the more sustainable option.

Let’s rephrase: Local is almost always more sustainable, while food labelled with certifications might not always be.

This is for two different reasons.

One. Local farmers are usually produce on a much smaller scale, and even if they have no certifications or may use some harsh chemicals, they are not likely using them to the extent that there is great harm done to the environment. Also, small-scale farmers, especially those who produce a diverse number of products, are tied closely with the land- often understanding these systems far better than we ever will. Also, investing in small scale farms promotes the kind of scaled back farming systems we want to see more of. This supports the incomes of farmers who are working hard, doing what they love and are passionate about. Still not sure? Have a talk with the farmer who produces your food.

Two. “Sustainable” labels are not a thing. There is actually no way to control or regulate the word “sustainable” because it is a complex and dynamic concept, and so too many definitions exist. So, while you can purchase products that are labeled with different certifications, it’s extremely hard to determine where it falls on the “sustainability” scale. This is something the project will aim to tackle at a later stage.

Of course, when lacking access to farmers markets, a good practice to follow is that certified products are typically better for the environment compared to the same product produced conventionally. This is simply because certifications hold farmers and their production practices to higher standards.

So, here’s a recap with two rules of thumb:

  1. Local is almost always more sustainable, while labelled food might not always be.
  2. When you can’t buy local, a certified product is typically better than its conventionally produced counterpart.

As with anything though- not always, and not everywhere. Number 2 is especially dicey and goes back to the issues of labels. Hence, why it’s a rule of thumb, and not a rule of law. Also a question that you may have- what is the difference between a certification and a label? Post to follow.

Note, a huge exemption: fish. You’ll have to be careful with this one, because the rules for fish are always changing. A future post will look at this issue.

ANNOUNCEMENT: In the works is an updated map of all Washington, D.C. farmers markets including days they’re open, times, when the season ends, and forms of payment and benefits they accept. This will help make it easier to track down that local farmer for all your questions 😉.