It's been a cracking start to the year for medical journal
, with the release of a large NZ-led study on fibre (discussed last week), and another doorstop of a report: Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.
It's a snooze-inducing title, but the report itself is a fascinating and important piece of work. It's the first time an attempt has been made to come up with a diet for the world that not only keeps people healthy, but also allows for nothing less than the survival of the planet. It's the work of 37 experts from 16 countries. The way we've been eating and producing food for the past 50 years is no longer sustainable they say, nor is it giving us the nutrition we need, with obesity and malnutrition existing alongside widespread environmental degradation.
"We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources," writes Lancet editor Tamara Lucas. "For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature."
This crisis, she says, is "stretching earth to its limits and threatening human and other species' sustained existence". Yikes.
The report presents a "planetary health" diet, which lets us feed 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet. This involves, they say, globally reducing our intakes of meat and sugar by 50 per cent, and doubling our intake of vegetables, legumes and nuts.
It's here that many people have got stuck. The report sets a target for red meat that's very low – 14 grams a day – and this has made many commentators angry. "How dare you tell us what to eat" seems to be the main thrust of the outcry, couched in criticism of the report's authors and funding, and cries that the diet is not nutritious and can't possibly apply here.
This is a shame. Because beyond the admittedly stringent policy proposals, the broader issues raised in the report are things we need to seriously talk about, at a societal and personal level. There can be little disagreement, for example, that the proposed goal of halving food waste is a pretty good idea, as are finding more efficient and sustainable ways of producing food and protecting the wild natural environments that still exist. As nutrition expert Dr David Katz puts it: "There are no healthy people on a ruined planet."
When you look at it, the planetary health diet (which the authors acknowledge is not meant to be "one size fits all") is not out of line with the way nutrition advice has been going, and seems broadly in line with a traditional Mediterranean diet. Eat lots of vegetables and fruit; whole grains; healthy fats; a little dairy. If you like meat, eat it once or twice a week. Have a couple of fish meals and a couple of chicken meals a week, and keep all your animal protein portions small. It's not outrageous. And it might just save the world.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.co.nz