Are Sustainable Diets Nutritionally Complete?

How Do Sustainable Diets Compare With Meat-Based Diets?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Earth DayIn a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have discussed a sustainable diet popularly known as the planetary diet. Here is a brief synopsis of that article:

  • The planetary diet came from an international commission called the “EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems” (Bureaucrats and scientists love long names.)
  • They were commissioned to recommend a diet that was both healthy and sustainable (good for the environment) through the year 2050.
  • The commission reported that the methods of food production required to support our current diets:
    • Occupy 40% of global land.
    • Are responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas production and 70% of freshwater use.
  • They further reported that:
    • Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems (In other words, we cannot limit global warming just by switching to electric cars and stoves.).
    • Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
    • The world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.
  • The planetary diet they recommended is a primarily plant-based diet. But it is not any plant-based diet. It limits animal foods to an extent that approaches a vegan diet.

That raises two important questions:

  1. Are sustainable diets like the planetary diet healthy? The answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes”. Numerous studies have shown that primarily plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based diets long term.

2) Are sustainable diets nutritionally complete? That is the question the authors of the current study (N Neufingerl and A Eilander, Nutrients, 14: 29, 2022) set out to answer.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThe authors searched the literature and identified 147 high-quality articles published between 2000 and January 2020 that compared the nutritional adequacy of primarily plant-based diets or vegan diets with meat-based diets.

They excluded:

  • Intervention studies because the nutritionists designing those studies assured the nutritional adequacy of the plant-based diet used in the study.
  • Overly restrictive plant-based diets such as the raw food diet or macrobiotic diet.
  • Primarily plant-based diets for disease prevention like the Mediterranean or DASH diets because they were too unlike the planetary diet.
  • Studies with pregnant or lactating women, populations with specific diseases, and athletes.

They chose diets that measured intakes of energy (calories), protein, PUFA (polyunsaturated fats), total omega-3 fats, ALA, EPA, DHA, fiber, vitamins A, B1, B6, B12, niacin, folate, C, D, E, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, magnesium, and phosphorous. [Note: Not all studies measured intakes of all the nutrients in this list.]

Their goal was to compare the nutritional adequacy of the diets, not the health of the diets. So, they did not report on the saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, or percent processed food content of the diets.

How Do Sustainable Diets Compare With Meat-Based Diets?

Food ChoicesThe Study showed that:

Vegan diets:

  • Tended to be inadequate in EPA, DHA, vitamins B12, D, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.
  • Tended to have favorably high intakes of fiber, PUFA, ALA, vitamins B1, B6, C, E, folate, and magnesium.

Vegetarian diets:

  • Tended to be inadequate in fiber, EPA, DHA, vitamins B12, D, E, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.
  • Tended to have favorably high intakes of PUFA, ALA, vitamin C, folate, and magnesium.

Meat-eaters:

  • Tended to be inadequate in fiber, PUFA, ALA, vitamins D, E, folate, calcium, and magnesium.
  • Tended to have favorably high intakes of protein, niacin, vitamin B12, and zinc.

Other observations:

  • Pesco-vegetarians (vegetarians who include fish as a major protein source) had the highest intake EPA and DHA of any of the groups studied.
  • Both vegetarians and vegans had lower protein intake than meat-eaters, but their average protein intake was adequate.

Finally, there are two important reminders as you look at the data.

  • The data for each nutrient was based on average intake of that nutrient in the diet group. The authors did not report the percent of people consuming that diet who had inadequate intake.
  • The authors were comparing the nutritional completeness of each diet, not the effect of the diets on diseases like heart disease and diabetes. However, this comparison is important because nutritional inadequacies left untreated for a long period of time can have significant health consequences.

Are Sustainable Diets Nutritionally Complete?

The authors concluded “…there are dietary inadequacies in any [restrictive] diet.” This is no surprise.

With respect to sustainable plant-based diets, the authors said, “In people following self-selected plant-based diets, especially vegan diets, intake of certain nutrients is lower compared to meat-containing diets.”

So, the answer to the question, “Are sustainable diets nutritionally complete?”, is clearly, “No. They do not provide 100% of the essential nutrients you need.”

Long-term nutritional deficiencies can have serious health implications. So, what should you do about it?

The authors made the following recommendations, “As plant-based diets are generally better for health and the environment, public health strategies should facilitate the transition to a [more] balanced diet…through consumer education, food fortification, and possible supplementation.”

Let me comment on the three recommendations they listed:

  • Consumer education is a great idea, but it is usually drowned out by Big Food Inc’s advertising budgets and the misleading information provided by the Dr. Strangeloves of the world.
  • Food fortification is also a useful idea. After all, it has eliminated several deficiency diseases in the past. But it is hard to fortify fruits and vegetables. And eating more highly processed plant-food products is not the way to better health – even if they are fortified. Besides, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the USDA to act.
  • That leaves responsible supplementation as the only viable option for anyone wanting to switch to a plant-based diet to save the planet. And if the environment is important to you, you will probably want to choose a supplement company that follows sustainable practices and is certified carbon neutral.

The Bottom Line 

Primarily plant-based diets are healthier for you and healthier for the planet. But are they nutritionally complete?

A recent systemic review of 147 published studies was designed to answer that question. As you might suspect, the answer was a clear, “No”.

Vegan diets:

  • Tended to be inadequate in EPA, DHA, vitamins B12, D, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.

Vegetarian diets:

  • Tended to be inadequate in fiber, EPA, DHA, vitamins B12, D, E, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.

The authors concluded, “As plant-based diets are generally better for health and the environment, public health strategies should facilitate the transition to a balanced diet…through consumer education, food fortification, and possible supplementation.”

Let me comment on the three recommendations they listed:

  • Consumer education is a great idea, but it is usually drowned out by Big Food Inc’s advertising budgets and the misleading information provided by the Dr. Strangeloves of the world.
  • Food fortification is also a useful idea. But it is hard to fortify fruits and vegetables. And eating more highly processed plant-food products is not the way to better health – even if they are fortified.
  • That leaves responsible supplementation as the only viable option for anyone wanting to switch to a plant-based diet to save the planet. And if the environment is important to you, you will probably want to choose a supplement company that follows sustainable practices and is certified carbon neutral.

For more information on this study, and the science behind my summary of the study, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

___________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

 

Eating For A Healthy Planet

Can Diet Affect The Health Of Our Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Earth DayEarth Day has come and gone. You have recommitted to saving the planet. You plan to recycle, conserve energy, and turn in your gas guzzler for an energy efficient car. But what about your diet? Is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose-lose diet”. It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win-win diet”. It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet”.

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about our environment…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The publication (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

Can Diet Affect The Health Of Our Planet?

Factory FarmWhen they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
    • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
    • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
    • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
    • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
    • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

healthy vs Unhealthy ChoicesWhen they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
    • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pastureland required to raise cattle and sheep.
    • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2.

The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.] 

    • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy, and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication of our lakes and oceans, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.

Eating For A Healthier Planet

Planetary DietIn the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes”.
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

confusionIf you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time”. If you have read the Forward to my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths”, you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose-lose diet”. It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win-win diet”. It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet”.

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor