The Planetary Health Diet: Good for our Gut?
In a recent summary report from The Lancet, a group of global researchers have put forward a new diet they are calling the ‘planetary health diet.’
While the report is rather lengthy, the concepts are fairly clear, but would require some serious behaviour change for our population and food system. With our growing global population estimated to be 10 billion by 2050, scientists have released a call-to-action that aims to tackle two key end-goals:
- Consuming healthy diets for optimal human health of the entire population
- Practicing sustainable food production that operates within our planet’s boundaries
Although a promise of sustainable food production techniques and enough food for our growing population is exciting, today we will be focusing on the human health aspects brought forth by this diet. How does this diet differ from how we currently eat? Does eating according to the planetary health diet improve our health outcomes overall?
What is the planetary health diet?
In my experience, we often hear the word diet and think about extreme restriction, very narrow food choices, and cutting out entire food groups or categories.
According to the Eat-Lancet Commission, this is not meant to be the case with the planetary health diet. Instead, they recommend focusing on a diet that is a “win-win” for both the environment and our own wellbeing. The planetary health diet is meant to be a dietary guideline that can be manipulated and implemented in a wide variety of ways, based on a person’s culture, preferences, and socio-economic factors. After all, this way of eating is recommended to the entire world by the scientists behind it. So it better be diverse!
The main dietary factors that constitute the planetary health diet are:
- Plant-based foods – Researchers behind the planetary health diet are calling for an increase in consumption of diverse plant-based foods including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and pulses. The research suggests we should be more than doubling our intake of plant-based foods globally.
- Less animal-sourced foods – There is an emphasis on less red meat in particular for both improved health outcomes and environmental reasons. In particular, their goal is to reduce excessive consumption of red meat in wealthier countries. Scientists predict North Americans are currently consuming about 638% more red meat than they are suggesting with the planetary health diet.
- Less added sugars – They suggest choosing more whole foods and shifting away from highly packaged and processed foods with added sugars
- Unsaturated fats – Many foods we currently eat are higher in saturated fat, which has been linked to negative health outcomes. Instead, the researchers here suggest choosing unsaturated plant oils as the main fats in the planetary health diet.
What does this mean for our health?
Overall, the planetary health diet is not unlike other diets we know. It is essentially a flexitarian diet and also bears huge similarities to the mediterranean diet. With both of these, you are also not required to cut out all meat or dairy, but it is suggested to reduce these things for both personal health and environmental benefit.
The evidence we currently have on flexitarian-style diets is actually quite good. Review articles on these plant-based diets have found significant evidence to suggest consuming more plants and less animal-sourced foods has been linked to lower risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and even cognitive impairment.2,3 However, it is still unclear whether it is the increase in plant foods or the decrease in animal products (or both) that makes the difference in human health.
How will the Planetary Health Diet impact our gut health?
At Ignite, we focus a lot on strengthening and maintaining a healthy gut microbiota. The gut has been linked to so many other systems in our body including our immunity, brain function, and metabolism.
In our practice, we operate on the ‘four pillars of gut health’, with the gut microbiota being one of these four key components for optimal gut function. The gut microbiota is the community of bacteria that make up the intestinal flora in our digestive tract. We each have our own unique species and strains of bacteria – some good, some just along for the ride, and some potentially harmful.
To keep the good bacteria thriving, we encourage our clients to feed them. And sure enough, our gut bacteria love fiber! This is where the planetary health diet may come in handy – with a focus on plant-based foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes, the planetary health diet looks promising for keeping our gut bacteria fueled and healthy.
With our current diet practices in North America, we see that most clients come to us not eating enough fiber. The daily recommendations for fiber are 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. That can be tricky with our current diets that are more meat-focused!
BUT – by consuming less animal-source foods and more plant based foods on the planetary health diet, you would likely meet fiber targets, easy breezy!
What we LOVE about the planetary diet is, it is inherently what we suggest to take care of your gut microbiota.
We only have 2 teeny tiny complaints about the planetary diet.
More vegetables /practical ways to measure your vegetables
We suggest you reach for that ‘upper range’ – the recommendation is about 300g of vegetables which is only about 2 cups total, (depending of the veggie of course) – and we like to suggest around 4 cups a day. Since veggies vary in weight (especially leafy greens) – the 300 grams may be reasonable, but for practicality sake, veggies are most easy to conceptualize in volume rather than weight as they are the one food grouping that has the most variance.
Potatoes and Starchy Tubers
While we’re not experts on the impact of farming different starches, we wish that potatoes and starchy tubers were lumped in with the grain products numbers. Inherently, I think most individuals include a variety of these foods, but for my celiac or IBS patients, potatoes may play a bigger role in their diet than a measly 50 grams a day. That’s a ¼ of a cup of potatoes.In the grand scheme of a week, some of us may only eat potatoes once a week, making this ‘work’ but again, I’d like the opportunity for patients to choose with their carb/starch choice. This may be a sustainability choice to have separated them, but from a practicality perspective, I would have personally liked to see them lumped together.
How do we start on the planetary diet?
When it comes to protein, we like to think about what the planetary diet will look like for you on a WEEKLY, not DAILY basis. For the higher volume foods, you can look at what you’ll need on a daily basis.
It equates to:
Red meat 3-5 oz 1x per week
Poultry 3-5 oz 2x per week
Eggs 2 a week
Fish 3-5 oz, 2-4x per week
Legumes – ½ a cup per day
Nuts & seeds ⅓ cup daily
Dairy or Dairy alternates 1 cup per day
Fruit – 1-3 pieces or ½ cups of fruit a day
Vegetables – 2 cups at lunch and supper daily (this one is tricky and weight dependant, so we swapped it to our recommendation so it’s easier to conceptualize)
Whole Grains/Starchy vegetables – again – tough to conceptualize – but an example would be: 2 slices of whole grain toast with breakfast, 1 cup of rice with lunch, 1 cup quinoa with supper – with starchy veg 1-2x per week in its place. Plus another whole grain choice or two (think approximately ½ a cup) as a snack.
Added fats – About 2 Tbsp of plant based oils
Sugars – 31 grams added sugar a day, max – coming in far below the WHO recommendations of less than 50 grams a day. This is about 6 tsp or 2 Tbsp of added sugar a day.
This is all fine and dandy, but how can you practically transition to the planetary diet? Use these 3 simple tips to get you started
- Consuming 2 cups of vegetables at both lunch & supper every day – This generally looks like ½ your plate!
- Trying to have at least 1 ‘meatless meal’ per day – replace animal-protein with plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, or chickpeas.
- Include fish 2x per week
These simple tips help you to get the ‘gist’ of the planetary diet started, and inherently reduce your animal product consumption.
Overall, the proposed planetary health diet reflects some of the best dietary evidence we currently have. The suggestions are not entirely radical or new, but have been presented in a way that not only focuses on human health, but also environmental sustainability as our population booms. If you want help transitioning to the planetary diet or using the planetary diet to improve your gut health, see one of our dietitians today!
- The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health, https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/
- Derbyshire, Emma. Flexitarian diets and health: A review of the evidence-based literature. Frontiers in Nutrition, 2017 Jan; 3(55)
- Serra-Majem L, Roman B, Estruch R. Scientific Evidence of Interventions Using the Mediterranean Diet: A Systematic Review. Nutrition Reviews. 2006;64:S27-S47. doi:10.1301/nr.2006.feb.S27-S47.
- Hardy, A. “The microbiome: The four pillars of gut health” IrritableBowelSyndrome.net, 3 January 2018, https://irritablebowelsyndrome.net/living/microbiome-four-pillars-gut-health/.