Sustainable Solutions

A Diet for Preventing Diabetes and Promoting Planetary Health

So much of what currently plagues our species and our planet, is driven by a combination of consumer choices and global socioeconomic and political systems that reward short term gains over long term sustainability.

The consequences of the decisions we make of what to put into our bodies starkly demonstrates the interconnectedness between human and planetary well-being. An increasingly common global “Western” diet centered around the high consumption of meat and highly processed and refined foods and beverages is driving global epidemics of chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCD’s) like type 2 diabetes, as well as deforestation, land degradation and climate change.

Much research has shown that these changing dietary patterns closely correlate to the rise of obesity and chronic metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, especially in the developing world. Extensive research has also shown that the consumption of whole foods, especially centered around a plant-based diet, can help prevent the incidence of these diseases. Furthermore, many environmental research publications have shown the agricultural sector to be the largest driver of deforestation. Land cleared for cow pastures and monocultures for commodity crops like soy and oil palm, drives the vast majority of this deforestation, which itself is a major driver of climate change. The agricultural sector also directly accounts for approximately 13 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the world wildlife fund estimates that approximately 12 million hectares of previously productive land is lost to desertification each year due to unsustainable agricultural practices.

Connecting the dots: What is a sustainable diet for human and planetary health?

It is an important step, in the age of climate change, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, and global epidemics of chronic non- communicable diseases (NCD’s), to connect the dots and define a sustainable “planetary health diet”: a diet that preserves human health and prevents disease, and minimizes the impact that our 7.5 billion strong (and growing) consumer-driven and resource-depleting species has on the planet.

In a recent publication by the EAT-Lancet commission, researchers have done just that. They took measures to define specific dietary patterns and food systems that can lower the agricultural footprint and subsequent stresses on earth systems, and simultaneously prevent the rising epidemics of obesity-related NCD’s diseases.

Among their recommendations, reducing the consumption of red meat, sugar and refined grains, and increasing the consumption of whole plant-based foods (especially fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes), are at the top of the list.

Resources and Further Reading

Emissions from the agricultural sector:

https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/05/everything-you-need-know-about-agricultural-emissions

Land lost to unsustainable agricultural practices:

http://wwf.panda.org/our_work/food/agriculture/impacts/habitat_loss.cfm/

Deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions:

https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/relationship-between-deforestation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Willett, Walter. Rochstrom, Johan, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. January 2019. Lancet.

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