Would you change the way you eat to save the world? Would you do it to safeguard your health so that you can live longer? Some people have already done so and have been encouraging others to follow suit without much success. According to the findings of a study published last week in the medical journal The Lancet, the Planetary Health Diet, developed by an international team of scientists, is critical to preserving life and doing so without harming the planet. The report, “Food in the Anthropocene”, is available online.
The Planetary Health Diet, surprisingly, is not a vegan diet. It involves, according to the report, the daily consumption of 2,500 calories, made up, primarily of plant-based foods, including legumes, vegetables, fruits and nuts, along with low amounts of animal-based foods, whole grains and unsaturated fats. It eschews added sugars, processed foods and refined grains. The team of 37 scientists used the results of controlled and large-cohort studies as well as random trials to conclude that such a diet will reduce chronic illnesses, like coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke and diabetes. It also offers several strategies to heal the world, including moving towards sustainable agriculture and fishing and reducing food waste.
The experts suggest that should this diet be adopted globally, it would prevent some 11 million deaths annually. Furthermore, with the earth’s population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, such a change could have a great positive impact on global warming. It all makes perfect sense and it would be feasible if only it were possible to easily bring about behaviour change. One does not have to be a social scientist to know that it would be difficult, if not impossible to get some folks to stop eating 8 ozs of steak or chicken at one sitting. Warnings about health issues they are likely to face in the future or the degradation of the planet just will not be enough.
History does provide several guides in this respect, but one case in point is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At the beginning, there was panic when there was not enough information in the world about what was causing the disease that was killing so many. Then came the knowledge that it was transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids and therefore unprotected sex was one route of infection – it did eventually become the main one as the global health sector began to tighten up on safe blood. However, the epidemic became a pandemic and still many people all around the world did not stop having unprotected sex with strangers and multiple partners; and also did not get tested to know their status and get treatment if necessary. Such behaviour still obtains today, even though the global accessibility of information on the virus is so vast there should be no one on the planet who does not know of the risks. The evidence is in the fact that there continues to be new infections in practically every country in the world.
Similarly, the risks posed to health by smoking tobacco, alcohol abuse and the use of illegal and addictive drugs are well known, yet every day in most places, people smoke, take one drink too many, or try an illegal drug for the first time.
According to statistics provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to the end of 2018, it was estimated that more that 1.1 billion people of the world’s 7.7 billion population smoke tobacco. Furthermore, the data reveals that 7 million people die each year as a result of tobacco use; over 6 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while around 900,000 are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.
It was also estimated that at least 80% of the world’s population has drunk alcohol at some point in their lives and globally, an estimated 237 million men and 45 million women suffer from alcohol-use disorders. Alcohol kills some 3 million people each year through traffic crashes, poisoning, chronic non-communicable diseases and other health conditions, the WHO said.
As regards drug use, the data suggests that some 31 million people in the world have drug-use disorders. Furthermore, approximately 11 million persons inject drugs, which is another path to HIV infection as well as contracting hepatitis. None of this information is hidden, it is all out there and much of it is being preached daily in classrooms, other forums, as advertisements on television, radio and other media and on billboards in some places.
While percentages of the world’s population indulge in the risky behaviours mentioned above, all of the world’s people eat. Some foods are a large part of countries’ cultures and preparing and consuming them are a form of fellowship. These are some of the reasons why the adoption of and adherence to a planetary health diet would be difficult, if not impossible. But the mere thought of the alternative, which is the population eating the world into famine while destroying the earth in the process, is anathema to anyone who truly loves the planet and hopes to leave some good for posterity. “Food in the Anthropocene” therefore, has to be an important part of the global conversation from here on.