Thirty-five per cent of daily calories from grains and tubers; protein mainly from plants, with not more than 14 gram of red meat a day; and 500 grams of fruits and vegetables.
That’s the ideal diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health — not only from the perspective of providing a nutritious and healthy diet, but also one that is sustainable and doesn’t compromise the planet’s health.
The aim of the study, conducted by NGO EAT and Lancet, the respected medical journal, was to understand how to provide a growing population of 10 billion (by 2050) a nutritious and sustainable diet.
Based on inputs from 37 experts from 16 countries, including India, the commission concluded that this is impossible without: transforming food habits; improving food production; and reducing food waste.
The study found that over the past 50 years, dominant diets have become nutritionally suboptimal, which calls for a global transformation of the food system.
The commission says the diet recommended by it, the so-called planetary health diet, could potentially avert between 10.9 million and 11.6 million premature deaths globally per year, reducing adult deaths by 19-23.6%.
“The message to cut down meat consumption by 50% is mainly for higher-income countries, as meat consumption is low in India, where meat-eaters are mainly flexitarian, eating mostly plant-based with the occasional inclusion of meat and fish,” said Dr K Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India, who was one of the two experts from India.
“Meat in India is from grassfed animals, which have lower environmental consequences than grain-fed animals in developed countries. For us, the message is fish is better than fowl, and fowl is better than flesh,” said Dr Reddy.
The widespread adoption of a planetary health diet will also improve intake of most nutrients, including healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and the lower consumption of unhealthy saturated fats to improve public health.
At least 820 million people are hungry worldwide, and close to 2 billion people eat too much of the wrong food, which leads to more disease and early death than unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined.
“India needs to promote the consumption of a diversity of grains (other than rice and wheat), and increase vegetable and fruit consumption by making them widely available at affordable prices,” said Dr Reddy. Promoting foods high in essential micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, folate, and vitamin A, can address most deficiencies (except for vitamin B12, where supplementation or fortification may be necessary).
“On average, Indians eat 250 gm of fruits and vegetables a day in urban areas, and 150 gm in rural areas, which is a little more than half of the 400 gm recommended by Wold Health Organisation,” said Dr Avula Laxman, scientist and head of the public health nutrition and the national nutrition monitoring bureau, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.
High cost is not always the deterrent; it’s just that people often don’t know better, said Dr Laxman. “Even green leafy vegetables, which are cheap and easily available, are not eaten enough, with 24 gm a day consumed in urban areas and 18 gm in rural areas, against the recommended amount of 40-50 gm a day,” he said.
India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables globally, producing 97 million metric tonnes of fruits and 179.69 million metric tonnes of vegetables a year, according to the National Horticulture Board’s annual report 2017-18, but the sector is a labour- and risk-intensive one, wracked with challenges like poor quality seeds, impoverished yield, insufficient cold storage space, unreliable transportation, inadequate use of technology, and inadequate quality control.
“Around 40% of vegetables produced are wasted, which means promoting locally-available food and improving the cold chain, including storage, transport and processing will help bring down cost and improve farmer income,” said Dr Prema Ramachandran, director, Nutrition Foundation of India.
The Commission proposes five strategies to tweak diets and food production. It suggests introducing policies to encourage people to choose healthy diets, including improving availability and access to healthy food through improved logistics and storage; moving from high volumes of crops to producing varied nutrient-rich crops; making agricultural sustainable taking into account local conditions; pushing effective governance of land and ocean use; and halving food waste.