New diets tend to be fads that don't stick around for long. Let's be honest; the likes of the Atkins, juice and cabbage soup diets aren't likely to be able to provide a long-term health solution. But this year the planetary health diet emerged as a new contender with some serious kudos - not only does it have the potential to 'transform' the planet, it also allows an average 2,500 calories a day, which is more than most. We're listening...
Unlike most diets, the planetary health diet has the support of many nutritionists and sustainability experts. We spoke with Claire Barnes, Nutritional Therapist at Bio-Kult, to get the lowdown on the new regime.
What is the planetary health diet?
The diet - unsurprisingly - has a focus on plant-based foods, but it does allow for some meat, fish and dairy. It emerged thanks to the EAT-Lancet Commission report which was published earlier this year, which found that the diet could have worldwide benefits both on individual health and the health of the planet.
"The diet has been designed to address ‘the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends'," Claire says. "The commission brought together 37 world-leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines, including human health, agriculture, political sciences and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production.
"Their guidelines seek to provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population, whilst at the same time, addresses the major role of farming in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans."
Unlike many new diets, the planetary one has a focus on far more than just individual health. “The world’s diets must change dramatically,” said Walter Willett, one of the leaders of the commission. "We are not talking about a deprivation diet here; we are talking about a way of eating that can be healthy, flavourful and enjoyable."
How does the planetary health diet work?
It's surprisingly easy to follow, and doesn't require too much change for most - although meat-lovers might struggle at first. "The planetary health diet is represented by half a plate of fruits, vegetables and nuts," explains the nutritionist. "The other half consists of primarily whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, pulses), unsaturated plant oils, modest amounts of meat and dairy, and some added sugars and starchy vegetables.
The recommended daily intake would look something like the below:
- Nuts - 50g a day
- Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes - 75g a day
- Fish - 28g a day
- Eggs - 13g a day (approximately one egg and a bit a week)
- Meat - 14g a day of red meat (beef lamb and pork) and 29g a day of chicken and poultry
- Carbs - whole grains like rice, wheat, corn and oats 232g a day and 50g a day of starchy vegetables
- Dairy - 250g - the equivalent of one glass of milk
- Vegetables - (300g, or approximately 3-4 servings)
- Fruit (200g, or 2.5 servings of fruit a day)
- 31g of sugar
- 50g worth of unsaturated oils like olive oil
"The biggest change for those who are daily meat eaters is the significant reduction in meat required by the diet. The recommendations for red meat equate to the equivalent of around one burger a week or one large steak a month. You can still have a portion of fish and the same of chicken a week, but plants are where the rest of your protein will need to come from. The researchers are recommending nuts and a good helping of legumes every day instead of animal products."
The diet relies on a large number of people to follow it in order to make a real difference to the planet. "Reducing meat intake in some parts of the world to these recommended daily intakes may not be too dissimilar to their usual daily intake. However in the UK where the average daily intake of meat is 108 grams for men and 72 grams for women, it will signify a huge alteration to the average daily diet."
Does the planetary health diet give all the right nutrients?
If you're used to eating meat regularly, you might be wondering how you'll get enough protein from the planetary health diet. But, if followed correctly, you shouldn't have a problem.
"The planetary health diet is largely plant-based and allows an average of 2,500 calories a day," says Claire. FYI, the usual recommended daily calorie allowance for a woman is 2,000. "It allows one beef burger and two servings of fish a week, but most protein comes from pulses and nuts. A glass of milk a day, or some cheese or butter, fits within the guidelines, as does an egg or two a week. Half of each plate of food under the diet is vegetables and fruit, and a third is wholegrain cereals.
"Whilst this diet provides an overview of daily intakes from different food groups, individuals would need to ensure that they are eating a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables to gain the different phytochemicals that are available from a variety of plants. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, wholegrains and pulses will also help to provide different fibre sources important for your digestive health and to maintain a healthy diverse gut microbiome," explains the nutritionist.
But there are some things you need to consider when changing your diet. "When drastically reducing animal products from the diet, levels of vitamin B12 may become more difficult to source in adequate amounts," notes Claire. "In the UK, a reference nutrient intake (RNI) for vitamin B12 in adults is set at 1.5 mcg per day or 2 mcg per day whilst breastfeeding. Fish, meat, poultry, eggs and milk are good sources of vitamin B12, as these can still be consumed within the Planetary Health Diet, adequate daily levels of vitamin B12 should still be achieved." The expert adds that you can look to supplements to help boost these vitamin levels.
"Another important aspect of a healthy diet requires a balance between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice doesn’t take into account individuality and diverse dietary preferences. Therefore it would be necessary to adapt the diet to individual requirements to ensure nutritional needs are met." In other words; ease yourself in. If dropping your meat intake drastically feels daunting, it's better to do it slowly than not at all.
What are the benefits of the planetary health diet?
"The researchers estimate that the diet will prevent about 11 million people dying each year," says Claire. "That number is largely down to cutting diseases related to unhealthy diets such as heart attacks, strokes and some cancers.
"The diet also promises significant benefits for the environment and wildlife, with better managed, more sustainable land-use," she notes.
Increasing plant-based foods in your diet in order to be environmentally-friendly isn't exactly a new idea - plenty have adopted a flexitarian diet in recent years - but this is one of the first studies to look at global impact plus individual health benefits, and come up with an exact plan to follow.
"Increasing plant–based foods in the diet will certainly be of benefit to most people’s health," Claire says. "This is often due to the high amount of fibre found in plant foods, which help to feed our gut microbes, which play a fundamental role in keeping us healthy. The lower levels of sugar and refined carbohydrates in this diet, in comparison to a typical Western diet, are also likely to help reduce the incidence of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular problems.
"Overall the goal to support the increased intake of plant-based foods, including legumes, pulses and nuts, with moderate consumption of red meat and added sugars is sound advice."
Would there be any side effects of the planetary health diet?
Your body will obviously react to the new diet, but you shouldn't need to worry too much unless it's extreme. "Any big change in our diet will also have a huge impact on the microbes which live in our gut," says Claire. "Different bacteria require different food sources to survive, meaning certain bacteria are likely to die off whilst others will thrive. If a dramatic change in diet occurs suddenly, some individuals may notice increased gas in the gut, which could lead to bloating, abdominal cramps and excess wind.
"These symptoms are likely to clear as the gut microbiota settles. Ideally making changes to the diet is best done slowly, so making one change at a time, such as starting by reducing the amount of meat eaten each week, opting for local grass-fed meats and avoiding processed meats such as ham and sausages and converting to eating a plant-based meal at least twice a week.
"Those already on restrictive diets for health concerns, individuals who have absorption issues (such as IBS) or people with eating disorders would all certainly require a more individual approach."
Does the planetary health diet support exercise?
The planetary health diet is based on creating a healthy diet from sustainable food systems and makes no reference to exercise as part of a health strategy within this framework - therefore, it's advised you take things slowly and listen to your body when making changes to the way you fuel before and after workouts.
It probably goes without saying that the diet probably won't be perfect for professional athletes. "As individual diet preferences have not been taken into account in this report, those who partake in regular intensive or endurance exercise may find they struggle to achieve the higher levels of protein they require without supplementation," says Claire.
As with any big dietary change, it's best to speak to your doctor before altering your entire food intake - particularly if you have any dietary needs. Otherwise, we can totally get on board with dietary changes that can help the environment and our bodies.