Researchers have designed a new diet that could safeguard the well-being of humans and our planet alike. In this diet, meat plays only a very small role. “People should choose their meat substitutes wisely,” Professor Marjukka Kolehmainen says.
- Text Ulla Kaltiala | Photos Raija Törrönen and Mostphotos
Last year, an international team of researchers published in Lancet a proposal of a planetary health diet that would ensure sufficient access to food for the world’s growing population, while also preventing deaths caused by poor diets, promoting sustainable development and mitigating climate change. In many ways, the planetary health diet is in line with the Finnish nutrition recommendations, but the recommended intake of different foods is determined in more detail, as is the intake of animal-based products that put a load on the environment. For example, the planetary health diet allows only 14 grams of red meat per day, and 100 grams per week. According to Finland’s current recommendations, the intake of red and processed meats should be limited to 500 grams per week. 74 per cent of women adhere to this recommendation, but the same is true for only 21 per cent of men. Many eat as much as 1 kilogram of meat per week.
The planetary health diet also allows 29 grams of poultry per day, and two eggs per week. Today, our intake of both is double than that. The Finnish nutrition recommendations do not determine specific intake limits; however, people are recommended to eat chicken as a substitute for red meat. The planetary health diet allows 28 grams of fish per day. Finns’ consumption of fish is slightly higher than that and, according to the Finnish nutrition recommendations, fish could be eaten even more, 2–3 portions per week, amounting to more than 50 grams per day. The idea of the planetary health diet can still be followed if one eats domestic wild fish that has a small carbon footprint. In the planetary health diet, the intake of dairy products is limited to 250 grams per day, which slightly less than in the Finnish recommendations.
Professor Marjukka Kolehmainen from the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland estimates that for many Finns, the shift from the current recommendations to the planetary health diet would be too drastic.
“Our current intake of protein, for example, is too high, but if people are to reduce their consumption of animal-based products this drastically, they need to have information about how to replace them. In addition, tasty and healthy meat substitutes must be easily available to consumers.”
Animal-based protein contains all the essential amino acids humans need. Plant-based sources of protein usually lack some of them, so it is important to combine different plant proteins that have different amino acid compositions, such as legumes, whole grains and nuts or seeds. Indeed, the planetary health diet allows 100 grams of legumes, 232 grams of whole grains and 30 grams of nuts per day.
Food technology makes it possible to process plant proteins so that they can be more easily used by humans.
People’s interest in substituting animal-based products with plant-based alternatives can already be seen in the growing selection of plant-based products.
“Food technology makes it possible to process plant proteins so that they can be more easily used by humans. However, the mere fact that a product is plant-based doesn’t guarantee that it is healthy, since many plant-based products are rich in salt and saturated fats.”
Food technology experts and nutritional scientists should join forces in product development, says Professor Kolehmainen, whose research revolves around these issues.
For example, Pulled Oats, a Finnish food innovation recognised with the Heart Symbol and readily available in stores, is a balanced combination of different sources of plant-based protein. The Heart Symbol guarantees that a product marked with it is of a good quality: for instance, the amount of salt is moderate, and the quality of fats is good. There are also other good options available.
The planetary health diet is designed to fulfil the dietary needs of people over 2 years of age.
“However, if we reduce our consumption of animal-based products without having access to high-quality plant-based alternatives that are acceptable to consumers, we could face risks especially in growing children, pregnant women and the elderly. Sufficient intake of protein is crucial for these groups, and this is why the large-scale shift to plant-based products should be a gradual one,” Professor Kolehmainen says.
“Others, too, could be at risk of eating an unbalanced diet, if it is not carefully designed. It should be noted that already our current recommendations call for a more moderate use of animal-based products, and dietary adjustments that are compliant with these recommendations do not raise concerns about sufficient intake of protein in different population groups. If, however, one wishes to make more drastic changes to the quantity and quality of protein, more careful planning is needed.”
Participants in the Finnish ScenoProt project found it easy to follow a diet where one of the two daily meals included animal-based proteins, and the other plant-based ones. This also improved their intake of fibre and, with the introduction of nuts, also the quality of fats in their diet.
Simply following the current nutrition recommendations would make our diet more “planetary”. Good choices for the planet and for our health include fibre-rich whole grain products, vegetables, root vegetables and fruit, and in Finland also berries. Grains are an important source of plant-based protein already in our current diet. Finns’ consumption of added sugar is in the higher range of the recommended amount, and in the planetary health diet, this should be halved to no more than 31 grams per day.
Why and how?
- Our current ways of producing and consuming food put a load on our plant and cause disease and death.
- The planetary health diet is the first scientific proposal of a global food system that would guarantee access to healthy food for everyone, i.e. for nearly 10 billion people by 2050. The proposal was authored by the EAT-Lancet Commission comprising 37 researchers of different disciplines from across the world.
- Increasingly sustainable production of food, a healthier diet and minimal food waste.
- More than doubling the use of plant-based products globally.
- More than halving the use of animal-based products globally.
- The model has been criticized for adding the costs of food for the world’s poorest populations. The model's environmental impact isn’t the same everywhere, either. In some places, increasing the production of vegetables would also increase the use of fresh water.
- Food Planet Health. The EAT-Lancet Commission Summary Report 2019.
- Springmann M, Wiebe K, Mason-D’Croz D, Sulser TB, Rayner M, Scarborough P. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. The Lancet, Vol 2 (10), E451-E461, Oct 1, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(18)30206-7
- Finnish food and nutrition recommendations Finnish Food Authority website, 2020.