Planetary diet: changing what we eat for our health and that of the planet

What we eat not only matters for our own and even collective health, but it also takes its toll on the planet. Changing your diet by opting for a healthier diet has benefits for people, but also for the environment.

The Planet Health Diet (PHD)—or planetary diet, in Spanish—is one of the proposals that have emerged in recent years and that try to unite both elements. “The PHD is a reference diet,” explains Fabrice DeClerck, the director of science at EAT, the platform for the transformation of the global food system that is behind it. “It suggests the quantity and quality of meals needed to reduce dietary health risks,” he says.

Thus, you are faced with either staying below or above what is necessary or a “poor” diet in terms of quality of intake. As DeClerck indicates, each person should consume 2,500 calories a day, “with meals distributed into the main food groups.” It can be a vegetarian, vegan or omnivorous diet, but it will be very mindful of what is best for those who follow its recommendations.

The design of the planetary diet is based on science. Behind it are just over 80 scientists, explains the manager, who have synthesized “the best available evidence” to establish the parameters of what a better diet should be like. His proposal was published in The Lancet, the leading medical journal, which, as DeClerck points out, led to it being reviewed—and analyzed—by his scientific peers. “The work and its data are recorded as a permanent part of the scientific literature,” he concludes.

But if the planetary diet already has concepts in its name, you can eat better for your own health and that of your environment by using already known ideas. When asked about this diet, dietician-nutritionist Cristina Bouzas explains that, in reality, the idea is not exactly new. Her recommendations coincide with what is already done in traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet. Of course, that means eating a ‘real’ Mediterranean diet and not simply thinking that because you live in the Mediterranean basin you already have your homework done. “But it is not done,” says Bouzas, who is also a professor of Physiology at the University of the Balearic Islands and is part of the CIBER-OBN research group on community nutrition and oxidative stress.

In fact, from southern Europe we should not fall into the trap of thinking that these recommendations to improve diet and thus health and that of the planet do not suit its inhabitants. As DeClerck responds when asked about what happens in this region, not everything we eat is a Mediterranean diet nor is everything we do follow tradition. “The good news is that there are a lot of fantastic foods from Spain and the region that are a good example of healthy,” says the expert.

Also better for the planet

Seeking a healthier diet can improve people’s quality of life, but not only. It’s also better for the planet. “Yes, and I’m not saying it: the world panel on healthy eating says it,” responds Luis Cabañas, president of the Official College of Dietitians-Nutritionists of the Valencian Community (CODiNuCoVa). “Coincidentally, the healthiest diet is also the most sustainable,” he adds. “A global transition to a healthy diet has a significant impact on sustainability, notably climate,” adds DeClerck.

«The healthiest diet is also the most sustainable»

Luis Cabañas

President of the Official College of Dietitians-Nutritionists of the Valencian Community (CODiNuCoVa)

And it makes some sense. As Cabañas explains, a healthy diet is one that takes into account the soil and the environment, which is what people spent thousands of years doing and what, therefore, designed how they ate. “Before, maybe they knew less about technology, but they were more correct about how to eat,” he summarizes. In the 60s, he exemplifies, in Spain legumes were consumed about six times a week, about 400 to 450 grams per person. Today, despite its value for our health, we are left at a mere 64 grams.

This not only means resuming lost habits from your grandparents’ pantry, but also questioning some of those that have emerged in recent years, such as the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Bouzas differentiates between processed products—such as frozen, ready-to-eat carrots—and ultra-processed ones. The former can make life easier and help you cook at home. The second are those that are potentially harmful to health, due to excessive consumption. The alerts already talk about its impact on physics, but it is beginning to be studied, the expert points out, even its effect on mental health.

And, as the specialist points out, they have an industrial process behind them that also makes them less friendly to the environment, with their processing and transportation. They will hardly be local commerce. “We have seen that its consumption is not only bad for the body, but also for the environment,” she summarizes.

Steak culture wars

If changing your diet to be more sustainable also means doing it to improve your health, why is there still so much reluctance about certain things? There is the always clear case of meat consumption. Why do we react in such a visceral way when experts tell us that we must moderate it, both for our health and for that of the planet?

“Wine is worse and both respond naturally to a cultural construction,” Cabañas concedes. “People think, when these recommendations are made, that their lifestyle is being attacked and no one likes to hear that they are doing something wrong,” he says. In reality, he indicates, it is out of concern for health.

“Food can indeed be divisive and polarizing, and telling people to eat less of a beloved food can be threatening,” DeClerck responds. The expert explains, even so, that all these issues must be qualified. “Reducing red meat consumption does not mean stopping it,” he points out. “There is no evidence that a ‘no meat’ future is necessary,” he adds. It is about reducing the amounts you are taking and increasing the consumption of other products such as vegetables or fruits that should be more present in the diet. “People often miss the significant benefits of this transition,” he notes.

And yes, we eat too much meat. Cabañas provides a statistic that says that each Spaniard ate an average of 300 grams of beef or pork per week in 2022, when the recommendations are 150 grams. Why does high consumption continue? “Most food customs and beliefs belong to their context,” says Cabañas. “Our fathers and mothers are, in many cases, sons and daughters of people who were deprived,” she adds. Meat was one of those special day or “rich” dishes. As soon as its access was democratized, it became something desirable, something that, therefore, we want to continue bringing to the table. The curious thing is, adds Bouzas, what happens when someone comments that they do not eat meat. His interlocutors “are scared about where they get their nutrients from, but no one asks that of someone who doesn’t eat vegetables,” he says.

In the end, what this transition—in general terms—implies is, perhaps, making a collective change, which is, in essence, what ideas such as the planetary diet promote. When DeClerck is asked why it is so difficult to change habits, he ends up talking about an important issue, which is that this is an individual and collective burden on health. “We don’t want to blame individuals, the challenge is how to create food environments that encourage and allow people to access and acquire healthy and delicious foods, which will have an impact on the environment,” he summarizes. That is, we have to think about what we eat, but also in the context in which we are doing it.

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