Criticism of the EAT-Lancet Commission
The EAT-Lancet Commission’s report has its critics. One is the UK’s National Farmers’ Union whose Vice President Stuart Roberts said, “Scientific communities agree that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balanced diet as a rich source of essential nutrients, minerals, amino acids and protein. It is overly simplistic to target one food group for a significant reduction in consumption, and it ignores its medically accepted role as a key part of a healthy, balanced diet . . . It is clear that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and British farmers are continuing to take action. A combination of policies and practises will be needed to enable farmers to meet their ambitions, but we must not forget the impact of a changing climate on food production”.
Benefits of red meat
Roberts is right to point out that red meat has health benefits. Heme iron, which is found in red meat (also in poultry, seafood and fish) is easily absorbed by your body and is a significant source of your dietary iron. Red meat also supplies you with vitamin B12 and zinc. The former is required for red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis, and the latter helps stimulate the activity of at least 100 different enzymes and helps to keep your immune system working effectively. Further, red meat provides protein, which helps to build your bones and muscles. People have been eating meat for millennia and have developed digestive systems well equipped to handle it.
Notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of red meat consumed in the developed world today is processed: raised in a factory environment, fed grain-based feed and given growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics and some animals, after being slaughtered, are further treated with nitrates, preservatives and various chemicals. The findings of all three studies described above demonstrate the harm of eating too much red and processed meat and stress the health and environmental benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
An urgent challenge
According to the EAT-Lancet Commission’s authors, “Providing healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an urgent and pressing challenge”. As the global population continues to grow - projected to reach 10bn by 2050 - and become wealthier, there is expected to be a concomitant increase in unhealthy diets comprised of red meat, processed food and sugar. To address this vast and escalating challenge, populations will need to combine significant dietary changes with enhanced food production and reduced food waste.
The impact of food waste
Before broaching some of the challenges associated with changing the way we eat collectively let us briefly describe the magnitude and effect of food wastage. According to the United Nation’s (UN) 1.3bn tonnes of food are wasted every year, which is about 33% of the total produced. The cost of global food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$990bn and yet some 800m people worldwide do not get enough to eat and 2bn people are overweight.
Further, food wastage is estimated to release the equivalent of 3.3bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. The total volume of water used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km³) is equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Similarly, 1.4bn hectares of land - 28% of the world's agricultural area - is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. And agriculture is responsible for a majority of threats to at-risk plant and animal species tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Changing what we eat and how we produce food will save lives and the planet
According to Alan Dangour, Professor in Food and Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), “The EAT-Lancet Commission’s analysis demonstrates that shifts in our diets can have enormous beneficial effects on health and also substantially reduce our impacts on the environment. This significant ‘win-win’ for health and the environment is not a new finding, but this analysis, which for the first time defines environmental boundaries for the food system, is the most advanced ever conducted”.
In a similar vein, Tara Garnett, a contributor to the EAT-Lancet Commission and a principal investigator of another research project on the future of food, also suggests that there’s nothing new in the Commission’s report but its fundamental message is that, “We’re not going to address our environmental problems unless we address the problems caused by the food system and we’re not going to address the problems caused by the food system unless we shift the way we eat collectively and globally”.
Rebalancing unhealthy diets is a significant challenge
Changing how we eat collectively, which Garnett and others suggest is necessary to reduce NCDs and enhance our environment, is not going to be easy. This is because it would involve cutting by half our consumption of red meat, processed food and sugar, and doubling our consumption of vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts. For people living in the US and UK it would be even more challenging because the EAT-Lancet Commission ranks the US 43rd and the UK 23rd for their respective unhealthy diets out of the 195 nations in its study. It is suggested that in order to adopt a healthy diet Americans would need to eat 84% less red meat and six times more beans and lentils, and British people would have to eat 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds.
Countries with the lowest rates of diet-related deaths are Israel, France, Spain and Japan. The highest rates are reported to be found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Marshall Islands. According to the Commission’s authors a Mediterranean-type-diet, “is what we should all be eating if we are concerned about our health and that of the planet”: it lowers the incidences of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, enables more environmentally helpful use of land and reduces carbon emissions.
The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet has been around for millennia and tends to be more of a lifestyle than a diet. It entails significantly lower amounts of beef, dairy products, sugar, soft drinks, pastries and processed foods; higher amounts of fish, fruit, nuts and salads, and no pasta, French fries and pastries. Unlike fashionable commercial diets associated with the weight management market, the Mediterranean diet does not have a set of specific rules that focus on losing weight, but instead emphasises eating fresh food over a lifetime. Also, the Mediterranean diet has been well studied. Research suggests that it is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality because of its significantly lower amounts of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, (the "bad" cholesterol) which is more likely to build up deposits in your arteries. Other benefits include reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Further, women who follow a Mediterranean diet have a reduced risk of breast cancer.
The PREDIMED study
Findings of a landmark clinical trial, entitled “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”, was published in the June 2013 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Popularly known as the PREDIMED study (Prevencion con Dieta Mediterranea), it tested the impact of two Mediterranean diets on cardiovascular risk. The first included a Mediterranean diet plus 30 grams of mixed nuts per day and the second was a Mediterranean diet plus at least four tablespoons a day of extra-virgin olive oil. The two diets were then compared to a low-fat diet, which is popularly advocated and pursued in the US and UK and among other developed nations and discourages the consumption of any high-fat items such as butter, cheese, oil, meats and pastries.
The low-fat diet
In the 1960s low-fat diets as opposed to high-fat, high-cholesterol diets were considered to promote heart health. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the low-fat diet was advocated by doctors, policy makers, the food industry and the media although there was no hard evidence to demonstrate it prevented heart disease and promoted weight loss. Notwithstanding, the low-fat-diet became an important part of the large and rapidly growing global weight management market, which is valued at some US$169bn and projected to grow at a CAGR of 2.4% and reach a value US$279bn by 2023. Interestingly, in the 80s and 90s, as the low-fat diet became an institution in the US and UK so the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased. Only recently has the low-fat diet been challenged as scientific evidence about fats increased.
A significant study with some methodological challenges
The PREDIMED study involved 7,447 people between 55 and 80 who were free from heart disease, came from 11 study centres across Spain and were randomly assigned to one of the three diets for five years. Findings suggested that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardio-vascular mortality compared to the low-fat diet. However, researchers discovered flaws with the study’s methodology and withdraw their findings. Most significantly, not all participants were randomly assigned to their diet and this could have influenced their findings.
Revised study of the Mediterranean diet
Researchers adjusted their methodology for its "irregularities in the randomization procedures" and published “new” findings in the June 2018 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which confirmed the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet for adults at high risk for heart disease and found that the Mediterranean diet, plus olive oil or nuts, reduced risk for heart events by 30% compared to a low-fat diet. Lead author Miguel Ángel Martínez-González suggested that only about 10% of participants were affected in their earlier study reported in 2013, and their 2018 analysis made researchers, "More convinced than ever of the robustness of the protection by the Mediterranean diet against cardiovascular disease”. According to Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, "Medical professionals and their patients can use the republished information with confidence". While reaction to the study’s initial findings was disappointing, experts are encouraged by the adjusted findings, which confirm the heart-health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, particularly in adults at high risk for heart disease. Notwithstanding, experts emphasise the significance of sustaining a healthy diet over time.
The health benefits of the Japanese diet
The Mediterranean diet is not the only diet, which has proven to have significant health benefits. The Japanese diet, which is low in calories and saturated fat and high in nutrients, especially phytonutrients such as antioxidants and flavonoids, found in different coloured vegetables, also has considerable health benefits. Findings of two studies; one published in the April 2017 edition of PLOS.ONE, and another published in the March 2016 edition of the British Medical Journal demonstrate that, closer adherence to a Japanese diet resulted in a significantly lower risk of death from NCDs and in particular from cardiovascular disease or stroke. Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country: 90 years for women and 84 for men. Okinawa, in southernmost Japan, has the highest number of centenarians in the world as well as the lowest risk of age-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There are nearly 800 centenarians in Okinawa, which has a population of 1,368,000. The diet of the Okinawan people has been little influenced by the dietary changes influenced by western culture, which also have been seen in more urban Japan.
All the research findings we describe in this Commentary confirm the adage that, “You are what you eat”. Nutrients from the food you eat provide support for all the cells in your body, which have different “shelf lives”. For example, your skin cells live for about a month and your red blood cells for about four months. So, your body is constantly regenerating new cells to replace those that have “expired”. The health of your new cells is partly determined by how well you have been eating. A diet high on processed red meat and low on nutrients does not help in this regeneration process. But a nutrient rich, whole food diet can help to build your cells so that they work better to help you recover from common illnesses and the wear-and-tear of everyday life and make you less susceptible to disease.
Although our concern about healthy eating has intensified in recent years, the phrase, “you are what you eat” is not new. In 1826 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es" [Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are]. However, the phrase did not emerge in English until the 1920s when nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, who believed that food controls health, developed the Catabolic Diet. According to Lindlahr, "Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat". And in 1942, he published a book entitled, “You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet”. Eat like the Greeks, live healthier lives and save our planet.