The food that we eat is damaging humans and the planet we depend on.
The “Western diet”, with its high proportions of meat and highly refined, processed foods, contributes to a long list of health problems including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, many types of cancer, mood disorders and dementia.
This unhealthy diet is also a big contributor to the ongoing devastation of our planet. Agriculture contributes up to 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70 per cent of fresh water, while land clearing and industrial farming methods involve large amounts of herbicides and pesticides that pollute our rivers, wetlands and coral reefs.
A recent report published by EAT and authoritative medical journal The Lancet warns that we must significantly transform the way we eat and grow our food. Failure to do so will cause an increasing proportion of the global population, which is expected to hit 10 billion people by 2050, to suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease. Today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded.
The report, which has brought together 37 experts from 16 countries, has for the first time set scientific targets that call for nothing short of a revolution in our farm-to-fork practices to address these seemingly colossal challenges.
The report calls for a “flexitarian” approach to eating which caters for meat eaters, as well as vegetarians and vegans.
The “planetary health diet” recommends doubling global consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, ditching refined grains in favour of wholegrains, and at least halving our consumption of red meat and sugar.
So what does a 21st-century nutritional and delicious meal that boosts health and protects the planet look like?
Here are some suggestions for those who are unaware of the delicious alternatives to meals dominated by meat.
Let’s start with breakfast
Homemade or good-quality muesli with fruit and yoghurt or, in cooler weather, cold-cooked oats with dried fruit and pepitas.
An occasional meal of egg, mushrooms, tomatoes or beans or a Middle Eastern shakshuka (spiced eggs) for a weekend special.
Wholegrain and seeded sandwiches with avocado, salad or vegies, plus falafel or a portion of cheese (there are daily limits of 500ml of milk or the equivalent in yoghurt or cheese).
Hot or cold soups, or salads with legumes such as delicious blue-green lentils.
There’s plenty of variety for dinner
The weekly limit for red meat is just under 100g for beef and lamb, and the same for pork, but either can be substituted for the other.
That’s two dinners with modest servings of meat suitable for a stir-fry, or as part of a winter casserole bolstered with plenty of the highly-recommended legumes and vegetables.
Chicken once or twice a week (either one big meal of 200g or two smaller meals of 100g). That could be one small serve of roast chicken with roasted vegies, or an enchilada (cooked chicken with vegetables, chilli, herbs and kidney beans tucked into a wholegrain corn or wheatmeal wrap).
Fish or other seafood also has a maximum consumption of 200g a week. That might be a single fillet of fish with a mango, chilli and mint coulis, served with a large plate of seasonal vegetables and one of the two weekly potatoes made into chips cooked in olive oil.
For another seafood meal, perhaps prawns with homemade satay sauce (making it yourself ensures a decent amount of peanut) with brown rice and a large salad.
Alternatives to meat
For omnivores — and Australians are one of the highest meat consumers in the world per capita — that leaves just one or two meatless dinners to think about.
There are many satisfying and easy alternatives to meat. How about wholemeal pasta with pesto and a big salad with greens, cherry tomatoes and avocado?
Or maybe a couple of Indian curries? Recipes abound, so try a chana masala (made with chickpeas), plus a dry cauliflower curry with rice and sambals (try flaked coconut, tomatoes, cucumber, coriander, mint and natural yoghurt).
You can also make full use of herbs, spices and extra virgin olive oil for cooking or on salads.
What about snacks?
No surprises here: junk foods are out, but fruit and nuts make excellent snack foods for those who need a little extra during the day.
So how do we do it?
The EAT-Lancet diet will require behaviour change for many Australians.
Education about the need to change eating habits is vital, but personal action is only one piece of the solution, which may not be readily available to everyone.
If you have been choosing processed foods high in fat and sugar since childhood, if you don’t have the time to prepare fresh food or the means to afford it, or if you live in a place where it’s just not available, then “choice” does not begin to describe the uphill battle to put healthy food in front of your family.
Farmers and retailers wanting to supply sustainably-grown food also face considerable hurdles in a system that has been skewed in favour of large-scale, industrial food production with low diversity.
Governments need to lead the way with policy changes that reflect modern-day challenges to the way we produce and consume our food.
It starts with the farm
The food revolution we need requires substantial agricultural innovation that must focus on improving efficiency and sustainability in existing farming lands; restoring degraded lands; a zero-expansion policy of agricultural land to enable natural ecosystems to thrive, and halving food waste.
The EAT-Lancet report also tells us that better governance of our land and seas is needed to protect the biodiversity that supports life. This is consistent with calls in Australia for the next elected federal government to develop new national environmental laws with independent authority to protect our environment and the ability to produce food into the future, in a way that does not cost us the planet and humanity’s future.
If our next elected government also puts money into making local fresh food readily available and affordable, subsidises and promotes sustainable farming methods, and protects our environment, we will reap the benefits of a healthier population.
We will also do our share of avoiding catastrophic damage to the planet from runaway climate change and other environmental threats.
Only then can we evolve from the current lose-lose scenario with poor diets that result in malnutrition, ongoing damage to ecosystems and worsening climate change, to a win-win scenario for people, animal life and the planet.
Dr Rosemary Stanton is a nutritionist and dietitian and part of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Doctors for the Environment Australia. Dr Kris Barnden is an obstetrician and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.