EAT Lancet: Sustainable Diet or Unaffordable, Privileged Option?

Remember when scientific journal The Lancet suggested we could save the planet and our health by eating better?

Earlier this year, in February 2019, the EAT-Lancet commission created the planetary health diet – the first science-based diet aiming to provide everyone with healthy food to tackle rising malnutrition rates and simultaneously combat climate change. The idea was simple - eat more locally grown plant-based foods like fruits, nuts and vegetables, and (mostly) ditch the meat.

This may be radical in the West, but for us, this is what our age-old wisdom has always said - put the burger down and eat your sabzi!

Creating a universally sustainable, healthy diet is a mammoth task. So just how adaptable and accessible is this for everyone - especially vulnerable an marginalised groups that are affected by both malnutrition and climate change most?

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Decoding the Planetary Diet

First, let’s break down what exactly the exotic-sounding planetary diet is.

The combined EAT-Lancet commission created a universal, sustainable and healthy diet to help save our health and the planet.

The report states that currently 820 million people have insufficient food and consume an unhealthy diet. A population growth of 10 billion people by 2050 will aggravate the food situation worldwide.

So the mostly plant-based diet is the recommended option that aims to feed those 10 billion people within the planet’s boundaries.

According to the commission, following the Planetary diet could avoid "approximately 11 million premature deaths per year" due to malnourishment. Meanwhile, the threat we as a civilization pose to the planet (and ultimately, ourselves) is well established.

The diet, therefore, is the product of rigorous study to find a way to optimize global agriculture toward mostly plant-based dietary patterns, along with “dramatic reductions in food losses and waste, and major improvements in food production practices,” according to EAT-Lancet report.

In short, it is an attempt to revolutionize the way we produce and consume food globally - although much of the developing world already focusses primarily on a plant-first diet.

Richard Horton and Tamara Lucas, editors at the Lancet“If we can eat in a way that works for our planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance will be restored.”

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Affordability and Local Adaptation: Where the Diet Fails

  • Affordability

For most of the global south - including South Asia, South America and Africa - prohibitive poverty rates make affording a nutritious meal a far cry. So is the Lancet’s suggestion a viable alternative for a world with vastly different incomes and spending power?

A study conducted by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts revealed that the recommended diet actually exceeded daily per capita income in many low-income countries.

Kalle Hirvonen, the lead author and development economist in Ethiopia at the International Food Policy Research Institute.“We found that the global median of the proposed diet would cost $2.84 per day (based on 2011 prices). In low-income countries, that amounts to 89.1 percent of a household’s daily per capita income, which is more than people can actually spend on food.”

So was the diet primarily designed for high-income countries? Hirvonen added that for them, “the diet would cost 6.1 percent of per-capita income, which is often less than what people now spend on food.”

According to the press release, this diet leaves out a considerable number of lower-income countries such as Southand Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, East Asia and Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean where high numbers of the population earn less than the local cost of the EAT-Lancet diet.

Even for higher-income countries like Europe and North America, 1.7 and 1.2 percent of the population earns below the cost of the diet. This means that a healthy and sustainable diet is not within the reach of much of the world’s poor and most vulnerable people who are most susceptible to malnutrition and climate change’s impacts.

Kalle Hirvonen“Even if many poor consumers were to aspire to consume healthier and more environmentally sustainable foods, income and price constraints frequently render this diet unaffordable.”

So can a diet that doesn't reflect the practical realities (and costs) of food consumption truly be a solution to everyone’s health needs?

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  • The diet is not mindful of (local) difference

With ambitions of being a universal diet, the EAT-Lancet recommended diet has fallen into the trap of assuming Western standards to be ‘universal’. So imposing a diet that majorly caters to a Western palate and dietary needs obviously has more than a few shortcomings as a global diet.

With a one-shoe-fits approach, the Lancet diet has also focused more on nutritional deficiencies in affluent countries and neglected local differences in dietary needs.

The WHO even withdrew support for the diet as they worried that it would “destroy traditional diets which are part of global and cultural heritages.”

Another big issue is the idea of cutting down on meat consumption, which arguably targets Western countries with their reliance on red meats. In a country like India, red meat consumption remains low and traditional meat farming is sustainable and locally sourced. The WHO also warned that adopting such a diet could “lead to the loss of millions of jobs linked to animal husbandry.”

To the reports' credit, they did acknowledge the difference in meat consumption adding that countries in North America eat almost 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat, while countries in South Asia eat only half the recommended amount.

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The Positives of the Diet

The basic messaging of the diet, of more plant and veg and less meat, is not new or mind-boggling. And the diet has collated data from 37 scientists and food researchers to put forward a comprehensive report. Of course, different people will react to different foods differently, and perhaps looking at this as a specific plan for everyone is where it gets tricky.

So maybe taking guidance and not specifics from the diet can prove useful. For example, both populations in the global south and north are “equal offenders in their high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverage” so cutting sugar is something everyone needs to be invested in.

Most importantly though, the diet empirically proves that food systems -from production to consumption - are intrinsically linked to environmental damage.

Dr Tara Garnett, a food researcher and contributor to the Lancet-Eat diet told The Guardian, “The fundamental message is that we’re not going to address our environmental problems unless we address the problems caused by the food system and we’re not going to address the problems caused by the food system unless we shift the way we eat collectively and globally.”

So maybe don’t change up your entire diet, but be mindful of what you eat and your role in the global food cycle.

(Delhi is in a public health emergency. The air outside is visibly toxic - how has the hazardous air #pollution impacted you? Write down your #PollutionKaSolution and send it to us at FIT@thequint.com. )

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