Vegan Living

Plant-based diet under discussion at U of S conference

A new diet says healthy eating should go beyond the plate.

The plant-based planetary health diet recommended in a report released in January hopes to create a global shift toward eating that improves the health of both the Earth and its inhabitants.

The report, “Food in the Anthropocene,” released in The Lancet, looks at the way systems of food production can affect the planet. The report says more than 10 million deaths around the world could be prevented if the diet was adopted on a massive scale.  

The report’s recommendations are among the topics up for discussion at the People Around the World (PAW) conference underway at the University of Saskatchewan, where interdisciplinary researchers are meeting with community and industry groups to discuss sustainably improving human health.

Report contributor and EAT director of science translation Dr. Brent Loken is one of the keynote speakers at the conference.

Loken said the team of 37 experts from 16 countries took a health-first approach to developing the diet. The commission’s goal was to come to a scientific consensus on what defines healthy food and sustainable food production. From there, it set targets for the global population to meet by 2050 through an all-encompassing global dietary shift, dubbed the “Great Food Transformation.”

“If you just think of the health of the plate and the health of the food itself, that’s one thing, but you have to lead it out to its end and say, ‘What are the larger societal costs of us eating this way?’ ” Loken said.

Dr. Brent Loken is a keynote speaker at the USASK Planetary Health Conference in Saskatoon on Thursday, March 12, 2019. (MATT SMITH/THE STAR PHOENIX)

The diet is largely plant-based, with a focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils. Seafood and poultry are considered okay in limited amounts.

Red and processed meats, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables are to be avoided. Loken said this is both for health reasons and because of their environmental impact. Animal-based foods have a significantly higher impact than plant-based ones across a range of areas, including land use, greenhouse gas production and affects on biodiversity, he said.

His work in Borneo gave him a more direct understanding of the level of destruction current food production practices can cause, he said.

“(Borneo) used to be covered with amazing rainforests, and it’s all being cut for oil palm. Oil palm is mainly used in junk foods — if you’re eating a Snickers bar, it’s got oil palm in it. So we’re destroying the tropical rainforest to produce unhealthy foods.”

Loken said the commission wants to challenge the idea that healthy eating is expensive and inaccessible.

“I think there’s a perception out there that eating this type of diet is elitist, and we get that pushback all the time … you don’t need to drive to Whole Foods and buy expensive foods to do this,” Loken said. “Actually, when you do the math, the economics of eating this diet is often less.”

The recommendations in the report substantially affect North American diets, which are the most heavily dependent on animal-based food sources like meat, eggs and dairy. Despite this and the massive scale of the report’s recommendations, Loken said people should feel empowered to make changes at the individual level.

“It’s always something really hard for me to answer. How does somebody in Saskatchewan save rainforests in Borneo?” Loken said. “Changing what you eat is the single greatest decision you can make as an individual. With this, what you eat tonight, the decision that you make, the food that you put in front of you and your kids, has a direct consequence on the planet. So that’s the great, powerful thing about food.”

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