What responsibility do we have as Christians when it comes to what we eat? Some things come to mind immediately. We receive our food with gratitude, acknowledging it as a gift from God. We share meals with loved ones, feeding spirits along with bellies. Perhaps we try to eat less-processed foods, taking the time to transform ingredients into nourishing and delicious dishes. We might garden and/or try to buy foods locally, to minimize the cost of shipping and to reduce our “footprint.”
What about eating as an act of justice, and an expression of hope? Our food choices can help enable our planet to support a nutritious diet for all people. A new report released in January by 37 scientists making up the global EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health proposes a way of eating that could “feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries.” The authors argue that the resulting diet, if adopted, will benefit both people and the planet. The diet is based on extensive current evidence linking food consumption patterns and human health.
A Diet for Human Health
Our dominant food system is unhealthy. In North America in general, we eat too much. We eat too many empty calories that offer little in the way of real nutrition. But we also eat too many rich foods like meat, which can be an important part of a healthy diet but can also predispose us to lifestyle diseases when consumed too much. At the same time, in far too many countries hundreds of millions of people do not have enough food to eat. Even where they can get enough calories, they often lack enough of certain kinds of foods—protein, or other foods that can provide needed vitamins and minerals—for good health.
In North America, we tend to be myopic about the food we eat, asking only, “What will this do for me?” Whether we choose to eat a Standard American Diet (SAD), paleo, or whole foods, we most often do so for very personal reasons—for our own convenience, or because we want to look or feel a certain way. The Planetary Health Diet, while likely to benefit your personal health, takes a broader approach. In this case, choosing what to eat also becomes a decision made on behalf of our fellow humans and of the world we all inhabit and depend on.
The Planetary Health Diet (PHD) suggests increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes. It calls for reduced consumption of sugar and of red meat, the latter especially in wealthier countries. But while the PHD shows proportions of different kinds of foods (e.g. vegetables, fruits, dairy, animal protein, etc.), it does not list specific foods. Actual meals based on the diet will look different from culture to culture, as is shown with the variety of photos in the Summary Report.1
A Diet for the Planet
Not only is our current food system unhealthy, it is also unsustainable. But a healthy diet is not automatically a sustainable one. Currently, food production systems threaten the stability of climates and the resilience of ecosystems. The PHD addresses the unsustainability of our current system. I realize that this is uncomfortable territory; many Christians refuse to admit that the way we humans collectively live is having serious and potentially irreversible impacts on the planet. But not wanting something to be true does not excuse denial or an unwillingness to at least consider the ramifications.
The EAT-Lancet Commission Summary Report focuses on six of nine planetary boundaries (the ones most impacted by our food systems), warning that if we cross these boundaries, we risk “irreversible and potentially catastrophic shifts in the Earth system.” These planetary boundaries include:
- Climate change (measuring greenhouse gas emissions like methane and nitrous oxide that cause the atmosphere to gradually warm, resulting in unpredictable and often devastating weather events).
- Land-system change (the amount of land we use for cropland).
- Freshwater use (water is a renewable resource, but most of the water on the planet is salt water in oceans. Only a very small fraction is available freshwater, and we are using that for irrigation at an unsustainable rate).
- Nitrogen cycling (how much nitrogen fertilizer is applied to crops).
- Phosphorus cycling (how much phosphorus is applied to crops).
- Biodiversity loss (how many extinctions happen in a given period of time).
What we eat does much more than just nourish and fuel our bodies. Our actions, including what we eat, make an impact that we cannot see. Our eating is an act of justice or of injustice. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to matter if I leave food on my plate to be thrown away; the world’s hungry people wouldn’t have access to that extra food anyway. But choosing not to waste food is one way to acknowledge and remember that food is a precious resource, one that is unavailable to many people in our world. It might not seem to matter if I eat meat at every meal—but doing so can be an act of arrogance. There literally are not enough resources in the world for everyone to eat that way. We have no right to live such a consumptive lifestyle—especially one that is making many of us sick from excess.
According to the Summary Report, “While some individual actions are enough to stay within specific boundaries, no single intervention is enough to stay below all boundaries simultaneously.” The authors add, “… even small increases in the consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve.” We are all needed in order to make this work!
My family was given leftover cooked hamburger patties at a recent barbecue we attended. My teenage son packed one in his lunch for school last week, saying, “This is going to be a good lunch!” Then he added, “But probably not very sustainable…” He was right, on both counts.
A Week of Planetary Health Diet Meals
At the end of January, my family ate suppers for a week based on sample recipes in line with the PHD. The recipes and a shopping list can be found on eatforum.org. We enjoyed the experience and found it eye-opening. Here are several takeaways from the week:
- As is common in North America, we shopped once for the whole week ahead. We came home with enough vegetables to completely cover the counter and fill the fridge. We also carried some angst about whether or not we would be able to use them all up before they spoiled.
- We were all interested in this food challenge. Each of the kids helped prepare at least one of the meals. They seemed to enjoy the meals more when they had a hand in making them.
- The meals used lots of vegetables! Partway through the week, I decided that the best way for me to adapt recipes/meals would be to think about an amount of vegetables that I would consider generous, and then at least double the amount! The number and variety of vegetables made for beautifully colorful meals.
- The Planetary Health Challenge made us rethink what a “good meal” looks like. For example, one meal included a meatless taco sauce made with portobello mushrooms and black beans. The sauce had a meaty texture, but was a lot of work to make, and the mushrooms ended up being as expensive as ground beef would have been. As we talked about it at supper, I realized how much water and energy are used to produce a pound of ground beef compared to mushrooms or black beans. My own convenience tends to be my first criterion for choosing foods, but is not the best one.
- We shopped in the middle of winter, when produce tends to be expensive and must be shipped over long distances. I wonder what the PHD would look like if winter meals were made with in-season foods, or things that store well such as squash, cabbages, onions, carrots, etc. Having variety in meals would require creativity. I found some good ideas in a favorite cookbook called Simply in Season, which has recipes arranged according to which vegetables and fruits are available in each season of the year.
- Four of the meals were meatless and three included meat. For the latter, we found the amount of meat to be more than we were used to eating. My family agreed that we would rather eat meat more often, but in smaller amounts, to still be in line with the PHD suggestions.
- Overall, the meals in this sample diet were heavy on wheat: wheat bulgur, wheat tortillas, wheat noodles, and pizza crust made with wheat flour. I try to eat wheat no more than once a day, because I tend to get itchy skin if I eat it more often (due to gluten? Glyphosate? Who knows). Lunch at our house usually includes bread, so I would prefer other options for whole grains in supper meals.
- The recipes were designed by European chefs, so sometimes we found the instructions a bit tricky. For example, oven temperatures were listed in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, and sometimes recipe ingredients were listed by weight rather than volume.
The EAT-Lancet Summary Report suggests several strategies to help meet the scientific targets the authors agreed upon. Several of the strategies involve policies and shifts in farming. Few of us are likely to be directly involved in those. But one strategy is obviously to increase consumption of plant-based foods including vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Another strategy named by the authors is to reduce food waste by at least half—something we as consumers can all work towards.
I admit that I have some questions about the PHD. My work puts me in touch with agricultural development workers who work with smallholder farmers in the tropics; I wonder why root crops occupy such a small proportion of the diet when they can grow in challenging conditions, are a reliable source of calories, and tend to store well. I also wonder if the diet provides enough calories for very active individuals like those smallholder farmers.
Some people with whom I have discussed this diet are ready to dismiss it outright. I encourage you not to do so. Be constructively critical, but also willing to engage with this concept of a diet that benefits both people and the planet. It is an issue that is relevant for all of us!
The EAT-Lancet Summary Report is short and accessible, available in seven languages. The full EAT-Lancet Commission report is available from The Lancet (you will need to register for free to view and download the report).