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food for thought

Consider a diet that can prolong your life and, at the same time, feed a growing global population without causing further damage to the environment.

That’s just what 37 scientists from 16 countries (the EAT-Lancet Commission) did for two years. Their findings resulted in recommendations for a healthy diet that can feed the world’s population from sustainable food systems and were published on Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.

They recognize that food production needs to nourish human health and support environmental sustainability; currently, our food systems are threatening both. Strong evidence indicates that livestock farming is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation, water use and chemical pollution.

The “planetary-health diet,” largely plant-based and low in red meat and sugar, is estimated to feed 10 billion people by 2050 from sustainable food systems. The researchers also believe it will prevent 11 million premature deaths a year caused by an unhealthy diet.

What’s in the diet?

Daily protein comes mostly from plants including beans, lentils, soy and nuts. Whole grains, not refined, are included, and fruits and vegetables fill half of your plate at meals.

The recommended 2,500-calorie diet doesn’t completely eliminate animal foods. It can include, each day, one half-ounce of red meat, one ounce each of fish and poultry and one cup of milk or yogurt. One to five eggs can be eaten a week.

Plant-based oils are substituted for animal fats and added sugars are limited to 31 g a day, in line with the WHO recommendation for sweeteners.

Is it feasible?

The planetary-health diet is a huge shift from the way we eat. But eating this way isn’t completely foreign.

The traditional Mediterranean diet of the early 1960s was largely plant-based and contained only 35 g of red meat and poultry combined each day. Many traditional diets (e.g., West Africa, India, Mexico and parts of Asia) contain lots of plant protein and little meat or dairy.

Some people, though, feel that achieving this global diet isn’t feasible.

Not today; that’s for sure. Reaching these dietary targets by 2050, the EAT-Lancet Commission points out, will require policies that encourage healthier food choices, agriculture sustainability, stricter rules around governing of land and oceans and reducing food waste.

Transitioning to a sustainable diet at home

In the meantime, there are small steps you can take on an individual level to move toward the planetary-health diet.

Replace meat with pulses. Substitute cooked brown or green lentils for half of the ground meat in meatloaf, meatballs, burgers, shepherd’s pie, stuffed peppers and marinara sauces.

Replace some of the meat in tacos and burritos with black beans or pinto beans. Reduce the amount of meat in chili and add extra kidney beans or chickpeas. Eventually, replace all of the meat with beans or lentils.

Replace cheese in sandwiches with hummus.

Use nuts to replace meat. Add almonds or cashews to a vegetable stir-fry instead of beef or chicken. For lunch, have a nut-butter sandwich instead of ham or turkey.

Boost plant protein at meals by tossing toasted nuts or pumpkins seeds into greens salads.

Set a target. Determine how many meatless meals you’ll eat each week and then build on that. Vegetarian chili, tofu stir-fry, salad with edamame, bean burgers, chickpea curry and lentil soup are protein- and nutrient-packed lunches and dinners.

Include plant-based breakfasts, too. Try a smoothie made with fruit, greens and soy or pea milk, whole grain toast with almond butter, oatmeal topped with nuts and berries, quinoa or millet porridge or scrambled tofu.

Pack in produce. Eat a mix of fruits and vegetables, at least five servings a day (one serving is one-half cup of cooked or raw vegetables, a half-cup of berries or one medium fruit). One-half of each meal should consist of these foods.

Consider your snacks. Making snacks 100-per-cent plant-based is an easy step to take. Choose fruit and nuts, homemade trail mix, vegetables and hummus, whole grain crackers with nut butter, soy/pea milk smoothies or soy lattes.

Rethink restaurants. You’ll find a variety of plant-based options at restaurants that specialize in ethnic cuisines such as Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Japanese and Chinese.

Or, pick a plant-based restaurant near you and when travelling.

Reduce food waste. Shop for, store and repurpose foods to minimize waste at home. Avoid buying in bulk; purchase only what you need whenever possible.

Buy “ugly produce,” misshapen fruits and vegetables often thrown away by farmers and grocery stores. Use vegetable scraps to make soup stock.

Store leftovers at the front of the fridge so you don’t forget them; eat within three or four days.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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