02 Aug Balancing human health against planetary health through diet
While the concept of a healthy diet is not new, many assertions have been made more recently on the best dietary patterns for the planet. A recent Advances in Nutrition paper explores the trade-offs for a number of the most popular suggestions.
Non-communicable diseases with strong ties to unhealthy diets are on the rise globally. The Western-style diet is often discussed as one such dietary pattern that does not reflect healthy eating guidelines and can have links to negative health outcomes. Against this benchmark, the authors compared various popular alternatives, such as flexitarian, vegetarian, or Mediterranean.
Each diet had health pros and cons. These range from nutritional adequacy, through to impacts on mental health and the microbiome. Environmentally, reduced consumption of animal-sourced foods and increased consumption of plant-based foods reduced the greenhouse gas emissions related to diet, while changes to water use varied between foods and studies, and increasing plants also tended to increase food waste.
The authors also considered the acceptability of these diets in terms of cost, accessibility, and cultural fit. Affordability and accessibility of healthier diets compared to current consumption was highly dependent on location and exact composition of the diet and amount eaten, while cultural fit decreased the more extreme the dietary change.
The authors concluded that predominantly plant-based diets, such as flexitarian or Mediterranean style diets, were best able to meet the needs of populations without the need for dietary education or supplementation, and were more likely to be widely acceptable. However, they note the need for extra care when considering the diets of groups with particularly sensitive nutritional needs, such as infants, and the need for regional specificity: a Mediterranean diet won’t necessarily be accepted by populations from other parts of the world, but local adaptation is quite possible.