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Planetary diet: Save the planet and lives by eating less meat, more vegetables

Meat is unhealthy both for the people who eat too much of it and for the planet, the report says.
Image: The EAT-Lancet commission says people around the world need to radically change the way they eat, moving to diets that emphasize plant foods.
The EAT-Lancet commission says people around the world need to radically change the way they eat, moving to diets that emphasize plant foods. They've created a visual representation of what that looks like.EAT-Lancet Commission

Here’s what to eat to save yourself and the planet: less meat and sugar, more fruits and vegetables, a global commission of experts says in a new report out Wednesday.

If everyone on the planet switched to a diet 50 percent lower in red meat and sugar than the average western diet, and much heavier in fruits and vegetables, about 11 million fewer people would die prematurely every year, the commission calculates.

And it would help save the planet, by forcing agriculture over to more sustainable methods that would pollute less and add less to global warming and climate change, the EAT-Lancet Commission said.

“Current diets are pushing the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries, while causing ill health. This puts both people and the planet at risk,” the commission said in a statement.

The commission, made up of 37 experts in nutrition, agriculture, economics, health and government, studied the problem for three years. Their report recommends radical changes in what people eat.

“The world’s diets must change dramatically,” Dr. Walter Willett, a Harvard University nutrition expert who was part of the commission, said in a statement.

“We really need to shift towards producing healthy foods not only for humans but for the planet, also."

“To be healthy, diets must have an appropriate calorie intake and consist of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars. The food group intake ranges that we suggest allow flexibility to accommodate various food types, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual dietary preferences — including numerous omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diets.”

Close to a billion people still get too little to eat, the report noted.

The commission broke down a precise diet that would provide optimal calories and nutrients, based on 2,500 calories per day. One example would include:

  • 811 calories of whole grains such as rice or wheat
  • 39 calories of starchy vegetables such as potatoes
  • 15 calories of beef or lamb
  • 15 calories of pork
  • 62 calories of poultry
  • 19 calories of eggs — about 3 eggs every two weeks
  • 40 calories of fish
  • 172 calories of beans, lentils or peas
  • 112 calories of soy food
  • 142 calories of peanuts
  • 149 calories of tree nuts
  • 153 calories of dairy
  • 68 calories worth of vegetables
  • 126 calories of fruit
  • 354 calories of unsaturated vegetable oil
  • 60 calories of saturated palm oil
  • No dairy fat at all
  • 36 calories of lard or tallow
  • 120 calories of sweeteners

“This is similar to most dietary recommendations,” Willett told reporters.

Such a diet would include up to about 1 glass a day of fat-free milk, two servings of fish a week and about two small servings a week of red meat.

Willett said three different analyses all came up with a similar projection. “Eleven million premature deaths could be avoided each year if everyone followed this healthy diet,” he said.

A plant-based diet low in meat, saturated fat and sugar lowers rates of heart disease and cancer, the two biggest killers globally.

The model is based on the energy needs of a 150 pound man or a 132 pound woman, both aged 30 and physically active. Such people need 10 percent of calories from protein and just 5 percent from added sugar, the report said. As people age or become less active, they need even less.

“The food we eat and how we produce it determines the health of people and the planet, and we are currently getting this seriously wrong,” said Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University of London, who was one of the commission members.

“We really need to shift towards producing healthy foods not only for humans but for the planet, also,” said Jessica Fanzo, a bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, another commission member.

“We need a new type of food production.” That includes strong management of the world’s fisheries, and government policies that switch agricultural production away from livestock and grains and more towards vegetables and fruits.

“We need massive cooperation to really address the situation that we are in currently,” she said.