Scientists have recently advocated a shift to the planetary health diet (or flexitarianism) to halt the widespread environmental damage done by the food production industry. But what would these new diets look like in practice and how much of a change do they entail?

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on February 27, 2019

What are these new diets?

The “planetary health diet” was devised by an international commission of 38 experts with the aim of creating an eating plan that could sustainably feed a population of 10 billion. Published in EAT-Lancet, it seeks to address the role of agriculture, particularly livestock farming, in depleting resources, driving climate change and causing pollution.

“Civilization is in crisis,” a comment on the report begins. It goes on to outline how the dominant diets humans have eaten for the last half-century are now major drivers of climate change and are contributing massively to a dangerous erosion of natureal biodiversity.

The most radical change in the planetary health diet is a massive reduction in meat and dairy consumption; following the diet may mean cutting down to a single steak a month. In place of these environmentally inefficient staples, the authors of the diet recommend people eat more non-starchy vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and legumes.

The proposed new diet followed the publication of a report in academic journal Nature late last year which arrived at a similar conclusion; mankind needs to radically change what we eat, switching to the plant-based flexitarian diet, to avoid looming environmental calamity and a spike in preventable diseases.

Ben Shewry
Attica Chef Ben Shewry. Photo credit: Jim Lee

Top chefs weigh in on our changing diet

There isn’t much that Attica Chef Ben Shewry doesn’t know about food, but the flexitarian diet is news to him. After hearing what it entails, he says that it sounds like a new term for a concept that has been around food circles for quite a while. “I think eating more vegetables is just smart,” he reasons.

“If you’re eating organic vegetables or even non-organics from an ethical farmer, that’s the easiest and cleanest way to eat something less harmful for the environment. If you’re eating any animal…that adds another whole big layer of complexity around how they’re raised, fed and dispatched.”

Peter Gilmore, the reigning Chef of the Year in Australia and Executive Chef of the acclaimed Quay, is another fine dining kingpin who is all in favour of the move to a flexitarian diet. “I think it’s a very good idea,” he told The CEO Magazine. “We need to see meat as a luxury. It takes two or three times as much plant protein or plant cereal base to produce meat than it does to get the same sort of energy you get from grains, cereals and vegetables.”

While limiting the ingredients chefs can use may seem like swiping a few colours from a painter’s palette, Gilmore believes there are abundant culinary possibilities in a largely meat-free diet. His recent book From the Earth made the case for heirloom vegetables as an important and versatile set of ingredients.

He points to the success of NOMA, with its rapturously acclaimed vegetable menus, as an example of what can be done creatively within these confines. “That is probably the way forward,” he says.

Environmental impact of flexitarian and planetary health diets

The report looks ahead to 2050 when the world will have a projected population of around 10 billion. It warns that current food consumption patterns are completely unsustainable and are contributing to greenhouse-gas emissions, nitrogen and phosporous pollutions and the loss of valuable biodiversity. Continuing to produce and consume food as we do we now “will reduce the stability of the Earth system”, the authors caution.

The diet was developed to tie in with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on collective action to improve the state of freshwater supplies, climate change, ocean pollution, and biodiversity by 2030.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri, a Consumer Psychologist at the University of Technology, Sydney, says that the environmental impact of such a dietary shift would be profound. “Compared to a heavy meat-eater diet, a shift to a flexitarian or a planetary health diet would approximately half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Camilleri also says that the level of consumer knowledge about the environmental impact of different foods is currently very low. “For example, to produce and distribute a serving of beef emits about twenty times more greenhouse gas emissions than an apple; however, people think the beef produces only twice as much,” he says. “Consumers are wrong by an order of magnitude.”

To address this problem, he has advocated labelling which educates consumers on the carbon footprint of each food item in the supermarket. This could be done with a star rating system or perhaps a traffic light scheme where the worst environmental offenders (such as red meat and lobster) earn themselves a red light.

Health benefits of the new plant-based diets

The recent EAT-Lancet report said that transitioning to the planetary health diet and drawing on plants as the main protein source would prevent a staggering 10.8-11.6 million deaths annually.

Simone Austin, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that adoption of the new diet would have multiple health benefits, including reducing the incidence of cancer and high blood pressure and lowering heart disease rates.

Austin also says the switch from processed carbohydrates to wholegrains envisaged in the planetary health diet would improve gut health. This in turn would have a positive impact on mental health, which we know now is closely linked to gut health. “If we can do anything to help our mental health by eating more vegetables, that would be great,” she says.

Dietitian Nutritionist Bec Norris (APD) says that there are numerous important nutrients in the nuts and legumes that feature heavily in the planetary health or flexitarian diet and that they supply vital protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. “The health benefits people can expect from adding nuts and legumes to their diet include reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, reduced colon cancer, reduce heart disease, less inflammation and fat surrounding the bodies vital organs (also known as visceral fat),” she says.

Both dietitians felt that there are tricks that can be used to smooth the transition to a plant-based diet. Norris suggests introducing meat-free Mondays as a starter, cooking more at home and buying a new vegetable or fruit to try each week. Austin recommends incorporating vegetables into snacks, adding some healthy fats such as olive oil to vegetables, buying fresh and seasonal produce and growing your own herbs to cut down on waste.

Austin, also the author of the recent Eat Like an Athlete, says vegetables don’t have to be stodgy and flavourless. “There is no point pulling out limp carrots from the bottom of the crisper and trying to make them taste good,” she says.

Will lab-produced or cultured meat ever become a staple?

A possible bridge between our current meat-heavy diets and a future where meat has been confined to delicacy status is the nascent lab-produced meat industry.

A number of cultured meat producers have been successful in raising capital (Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates were among those to tip US$90 million into a new plant-based meat venture) , but they face regulatory hurdles and fierce opposition from the animal meat industry. There has also been recent research from the University of Oxford casting doubt over whether cultured meat will actually lead to a reduction in climate change in the long term.

Norris, who has also volunteered at the not-for-profit cultured meat company New Harvest, says the technology is relatively new and is still developing, but has potential. “I think cellular agriculture is a future food that provides another way to feed our growing population without inhuman animal practices and at the cost of the environment,” she says.

While it remains unclear whether cultured meat will become economically viable or whether the population at large will ever embrace it, Norris points to evidence that younger generations are more open to at least trying it.

For his part, Gilmore admits he will probably never use lab-produced meats in his kitchen. “I sort of figure I would rather just cook a little less real meat,” he considers. “There is probably a place for it, but for me, I would rather see things like grains, nuts and vegetables used as they are.”

The solutions to our food production woes may not necessarily be as high tech as the in vitro cultivation of animal cells involved in cultured meat. When he spoke to The CEO Magazine, Shewry was just about to sit down to a rustic salad for lunch. For a chef with every trick in the culinary book and a few of his own invention, there is still virtue in such simplicity. “It makes you feel better and it’s definitely better for the environment,” he says.

Header image credit: nrd