Fast Take: The EAT-Lancet Report on Sustainable Diets

Highlights: 
  • Report states that feeding 10 billion people by the year 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will be impossible without changing eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste.
  • There are some similarities between the current US Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the EAT-Lancet Report’s diet recommendations. However, they differ in their recommendation on the consumption of sugars, red meat and dairy notably.
  • While this report calls for further sustainable food production practices, consumers should not overlook the environmentally focused techniques that are currently employed to produce a wide variety of healthy foods across the globe with natural resource conservation in mind.

Feeding our ever-growing population will take the diligent work of many farmers and food producers. As we ponder how much food needs to be produced to feed us all, should we also consider the ecological demands that food production takes? Many of us do. This week, a globally represented group of scientists released a report on this topic. The EAT-Lancet Commission released the “Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems” report showcasing new dietary recommendations focused on enhanced plant-based food consumption to increase the health of our populations. The report also issues advice on altering food production practices to be more environmentally sustainable and increase the health of our planet.

What is the EAT-Lancet Commission?

EAT is a global non-profit that aims to connect science, policy, business and society to achieve their mission of transforming the global food system through sustainable diet and agricultural production practices. Their primary goal is “to achieve planetary health diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050.”

What Nutrition Recommendations Are in The Report?

Let’s take a closer look at what the report recommends and how it compares to another well-known set of evidence-based dietary recommendations: The current US Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The DGA have historically focused on eating patterns that promote overall health and prevent chronic disease. Bringing sustainability into the mix was proposed during deliberations for the current set of guidelines, but ultimately it was not included.  

There are some similarities between the current DGAs and the EAT-Lancet Report’s diet recommendations. First, the Report focuses on diets for ages 2 and older and uses food groups to recommend amounts of each group that we should consume. Additionally, both the DGA and this report include recommendations for intake of fats, added sugars and salt. See below for an ideal plate defined by the EAT-Lancet Commission versus the DGA MyPlate tool.

EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Plate

Current US Dietary Guidelines MyPlate

Much like the DGA, the Commission’s recommendation for a healthy diet “largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and includes no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

Key Considerations in Comparing DGA to the EAT-Lancet Diet

While recommendations for fruits, vegetables and whole grains remain similar between the EAT-Lancet Report and the DGA, there are a few key differences to note:

  • Calorie Count. The DGA are typically based on a 2,000 calorie diet, but the Commission uses a 2,500 calorie reference for two reasons: 1) Estimated calorie intake is 2,370 per day globally; 2) The 2,500 calories correspond with the needs of a moderate to highly active 30-year-old, 70 kilogram (kg) male or 60 kg female.
  • Sugars in the Spotlight. The Report recommends total added sugar intake be no more than 31 grams per day (about 7.5 teaspoons) for all sweeteners, or less than 5 percent of total energy. Essentially, they call for a 50 percent reduction in added sugar intake compared to the DGA and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, which state that added sugar intake should be less than 10 percent of total energy. A conditional recommendation from the WHO (based on very low and moderate quality evidence for dental caries) goes a step further, saying that less than 5 percent would be beneficial.
  • Call for a Reduction in Red Meat. The Report argues that red meat is not essential and that optimal intake might be no red meat at all. Because data on risk of low red meat intakes are imprecise, a range of 0 to 28 grams (less than one ounce) per day is offered as “desirable” and an average of 14 grams (half an ounce) is used as the reference. No specific recommendation for red meat intake is made in the DGA. However, individuals are advised to keep total consumption of meat, poultry and eggs between 3 to 26 ounces per week.
  • Differences in Dairy. The Report states that dairy recommendations are primarily made to meet calcium intake references. Because optimal calcium intake recommendations vary globally, 0 to 500 grams (about 17.6 ounces) of dairy foods per day is offered as the range, with 250 grams (just under 9 ounces) being the reference amount. The Commission concluded that optimal dairy intake is on the lower end of this range because unsaturated plant oils are more beneficial for cardiovascular disease risk than dairy fat. In contrast, the DGA recommend 2-3 cup equivalents of dairy per day.

What Food Production Recommendations Are in the Report?

In addition to having recommendations for what food people should eat, the Report also addresses the modification of current food production practices to address environmental stress. It is undeniable that the majority of us want to make environmentally sustainable food purchases, as highlighted in the IFIC Foundation 2018 Food and Health Survey.

Sustainable Water and Land Use

Farmers use an array of practices for conserving natural resources and producing a sufficient amount of nutritious food to feed our population. The utilization of precision agriculture practices such as GPS guidance for crop vehicles, drones, autonomous vehicles, and various other software advances can help farmers be more efficient in soil maintenance, water conservation and enhanced use of energy-saving machinery. However, even with the use of precision agriculture techniques, mindful farming does come with a concern for environmental stewardship, diligent water use and attention to soil degradation.

Farmers employ strategic water irrigation techniques that remain helpful in times of drought, and aid in effective water conservation and water reuse. Farmers even reclaim wastewater (runoff water from crop processing facilities) and use it to improve their soil organic content, moisture-holding capacity, nutrient content and productivity. After food leaves the farm, water is still conserved by food manufacturing facilities as well. Many food and beverage plants reuse process wastewater onsite while still maintaining safety and quality. The majority of wastewater in food production facilities is used in non-food contact contexts, such as irrigation of landscaping, truck washing, cooling towers and warehouse floor washing. However, in some cases, water can be reused in boilers, evaporators or chillers.

While soil degradation does occur and remains a concern for farmers and food producers, it can often be mitigated, prevented and even reversed through the use of sustainable farming techniques and advanced land management practices. Farmers also successfully aim to slow erosion rates of the soil in such a manner that the productivity of it is not diminished.

Farmers are actively using methods such as conservation tillage, application of biochar and compost, rotational grazing for farm animals, planting of cover crops and the spreading of manure to replenish soil nutrients, such as carbon.

Reducing Food Waste

Food waste is a concerning and serious issue around the world. In 2011, an FAO assessment on global food losses and waste estimated that “each year, one-third of all food produced in the world for human consumption never reached the consumer’s table.” And although some food waste can occur throughout the food supply chain, in the United States consumers are most responsible for the majority of wasted food that ends up in landfills. The average American tosses out about 300 pounds of food per year, which amounts to billions of pounds of wasted food.

While local conditions in varying countries will impact where the most changes need to be made, these implications highlight the necessity to focus on reducing food waste on the production end and on the consumer end as well. Certainly, consumers can take action by changing meal planning, buying more frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (which have a longer shelf life than their fresh counterparts), safely saving leftovers from restaurant meals and being educated about "Best if Used By" dates.

What Are the Takeaways?

The recommendations from the Eat-Lancet Commission do align somewhat with that of the 2015 DGA, but they are not one and the same. For example, the current DGA do not consider the impact of food choice on planetary health (perhaps in the future they will), which could, in part, explain some of the differences between DGA and Eat-Lancet food group and nutrient recommendations.

Notably, all of modern agriculture may not be perfect, but current agricultural technologies do have many positive attributes that can help to abate potential adverse environmental impacts from food production. And from an overall perspective, it’s encouraging to see that the DGA and Eat-Lancet Report agree on the need for dietary guidance to be flexible and tailored to different preferences, cultures and food availabilities.

This blog was written by Tamika Sims, PhDAlyssa Pike, RDAllison Webster, PhD, RD, and Kris Sollid, RD.

Sign Up to Get Regular Servings of FACTS

Imagine you actually had a resource that broke down the sensationalism about food, agriculture, and nutrition into real, science-based information.

  • Join the tens of thousands of mythbusters out there fighting against bad information on food
  • Get no-nonsense, easy-to-understand nutrition and safety insights
  • Read Q&As with experts explaining the latest studies, debates, and news stories
  • Be empowered to make your own decisions about your diet
1 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.