Written by Travis Nice on January 7, 2021
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The whole point of Eat Like It Matters is to change my diet in such a way that 10-billion people following this diet, and the planet that they live on, will thrive in good health. Unhealthy diets pose a greater risk of early death than almost anything else that people do. To avoid these risks, I’ve decided to look at an alternative diet that The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health call the ‘Universal Healthy Reference Diet’.
The diet has been brought about to address the health and environmental challenges in the 21st century. The commission has found that the entire global food system needs transformation, as current trends indicate that we will suffer food shortages by 2050. Much of the change takes place closer to the production of food, but individuals must also change their demand for food or else we may be forced to change unwillingly.
A change to individual diets is a central tenet of transforming the food system, as we learn new ways of reducing loss, waste, and adapting to ‘nature-positive production practices’. Let’s now take a look at the ‘Universal Healthy Reference Diet’, and see how it compares to our current diets:
As you can see from Table 1 above, there’s is little to give up, I can still eat my favourite foods albeit in different proportions to one another. Compared to my current (Australian) diet, this Universal Healthy Reference Diet is heavily geared toward fruits and vegetables.
For me, I can see straight up that changing to this diet will greatly improve my intake of nutrients even with smaller meal sizes. This diet relies on two key points that are good for me and the Earth:
- A plant rich diet, and
- Diversity of foods.
Plant Rich Diet
The diet allows for around 2,500 kcal per day which should be enough to fuel the energy needs of a 70kg man or 60kg woman at age 30. It allows for moderate exercise, but of course it is a reference diet, so it can be adjusted according to need.
For me, I’m a 40-year-old male who’s quite sedentary and hover around 85kg. If I follow this diet within it’s current ranges, I can expect to lose some weight which I’ve already been meaning to do for some time.
The diet drastically reduces the intake of animal proteins which I am used to (and enjoy). The protein intake of the diet is once again suitable for a 30-year-old man of 70kg, with the rule of thumb being 0.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight. Much of the proteins I will be consuming in this diet will come from plants, particularly the protein rich sources of beans, lentils, nuts, etc.
This diet is heavily reliant on whole grains, rather than refined grains. This comes about in this diet due in large part to the current global consumption of grains. Refining grains causes loss to the fibre and nutrient contents of the grains which leads to waste on the production side of the food system, and health implications on the consumption side of the food system. Neither of which are good for people nor the planet.
Increasing my intake of whole grains in line with this diet should reduce my risk of developing coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and overall mortality.
The Table 1 shows a fair amount of fruits, which in practice, equates to about five servings per day. I know that I should eat more fruits than I do now, but I’d be lucky if I had one serve (of fresh fruit) per day now. I don’t know why I don’t eat more fruit, I actually quite enjoy it, so I’m looking forward to consciously eating more fruit each day.
I love consuming dairy, whole milk, cream, butter, yoghurt, cheese. I’m glad to see that I can still consume a lot of dairy, because I can assure you that I will be taking it to the upper limits of the reference range.
One thing I’m glad that I won’t need to change is my intake of added sugars. I already avoid adding sugar to anything, and I only become aware of my sugar consumption if I’m eating baked goods (which is rare).
All up, this plant-based diet is a win-win, a win for my health, and a win for the Earth. The Universal Healthy Reference Diet comprises of ingredients that are produced in large quantities and of great quality within sustainable environmental limits. They are also ingredients that have repeatedly been proven to be good for human health over time, like with mediterranean style diets which I’ll write more about later.
I was shocked at first to learn that 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. I say at first, because once I thought about it, I couldn’t name even twelve plants or five animals that I eat regularly.
I also learned that just 3 species of plant (rice, maize, and wheat) make up nearly 60% of calories consumed from plants in the human diet. It makes sense to me. If eat a grain for breakfast, it’s cornflakes. If I eat a grain for lunch, it’s wheat (refined into bread). If I eat a grain for dinner, it’s rice. With a rare exception I may eat barley or some such ‘specialty’ dish, but left to my own devices, I too eat just those three grains.
It’s important that we are aware of what we eat, and the choices we make for the health of ourselves and our planet. In looking for inspiration in meal planning I found Canada has a good guide to diversify our plates:
- Make a half of the plate fruit and vegetables,
- Make a quarter of the plate with proteins (plant proteins too),
- Make a quarter of the plate with whole-grains.
- And wash it all down with water being the drink of choice.
That’s so simple, even I can plan a plate around that.
 Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S., Garnett, T., Tilman, D., DeClerck, F., Wood, A., Jonell, M., Clark, M., Gordon, LJ., Fanzo, J., Hawkes, C., Zurayk, R., Rivera, JA., De Vries, W., Sibanda, M., Afshin, A., Chaudhary, A., Herrero, M., Agustina, R., Branca, F., Lartey, A., Fan, S., Crona, B., Fox, E., Bignet, V., Troell, M., Lindahl, T., Singh, S., Cornell, SE., Reddy, KS., Narain, S., Nishtar, S., Murray, CJL. 2019. Food in the anthropocene: The EAT– lancet commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet, 393(10170), 447-492.
 WWF (2020). Bending the Curve: The Restorative Power of Planet-Based Diets. Loken, B. et al. WWF, Gland, Switzerland
 Shaver, D. 2019. Future 50 Foods.