The benefits of a plant-based diet are backed by numerous studies. But a new Lancet report goes even further, recommending a significant reduction in meat and sugar consumption worldwide.

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On Nutrition

The benefits of a plant-based diet — one abundant in plant-sourced foods but not animal products — for health and the environment are supported by numerous studies. But a new Lancet report suggests that everyone who eats meat should cut back — way back.

The report, released by the global EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, co-chaired by Walter Willett, M.D., of Harvard University, was released Jan. 17, and calls for doubling global intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts and pulses (beans and lentils) while reducing intake of red meat and sugar by more than half. The report also calls for cutting food waste by half and improving farm efficiencies to achieve maximum crop yields. The recommendations are similar to those from a study published last May in the journal Food Policy.

The report aims to find a “win-win” for both planetary and human health, but at a time when personalized nutrition is closer to becoming a reality, some might find a few of the report’s universal recommendations hard to swallow. Chief among them: EAT-Lancet’s recommendation that we limit beef, lamb and pork consumption to a total of 3.5 ounces per week; the report calls these meats a culprit in both chronic disease and climate change.

Although red meat is a source of saturated fat — which we do need to limit — a 3-ounce serving of lean beef is an excellent source of protein and several essential nutrients, including vitamin B12, as well as a good source of iron. In fact, the report acknowledges that strictly reducing red-meat intake may require many people to take iron and B12 supplements. This is far from a get-your-nutrients-from-food approach.

Generally speaking, we all eat every day, so our collective food choices certainly have an impact on the environment, just as our individual food choices have an impact on health. For additional perspective on EAT-Lancet’s proposed “Great Food Transformation,” I reached out to registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, MS, RDN, an expert in sustainable food systems and author of “The Plant-Powered Diet” and “Plant-Powered for Life,” as well as Sara Place, Ph.D., senior director of sustainable-beef-production research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

Shrinking our “foodprint”

“We see more and more studies that show a rise in interest in plant-based eating — surveys have shown that 70 percent of people are trying to eat a more plant-based diet, and 59 percent are concerned about sustainability when they make food choices,” Palmer said. “This report addresses some of the major issues related to food sustainability, which also happen to impact human health, too. When these issues come into alignment, you have great potential to make positive change.”

Palmer agrees that major shifts need to occur in diet and production in order to address human health and environmental health. These changes will become even more important as developing nations start eating more like the U.S., which arguably has some of the worst eating patterns in the developed world. “This report doesn’t say that you must give up animal foods altogether, but it recommends a significant reduction and shift to foods like beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” she said.

Palmer says switching to a more plant-based diet can significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, land usage, methane production and water usage, and that she’s glad the report addresses biodiversity and conservation. “We simply can’t let food production take up our entire planet as our population expands — we need to leave something to support our beautiful, rich planet, with its diverse flora and fauna, and unique ecosystems.”

Palmer said the EAT-Lancet report comes at a crucial time, as the global population rises. “More land will be required to meet the growing demand if we continue to eat the way we do now. Of course, food waste is part of this equation. We must significantly cut food waste in order to reduce the impact of growing food that will never be consumed,” she said. “I believe this is a very impactful, bold movement, and I hope that it will be embraced by people, organizations and governments.”

Human ingenuity and science

EAT-Lancet calls for producing a diverse range of nutritious food crops instead of high volumes of a few crops, “most of which are used for animal production.” Place points out that even grain-finished beef cattle get 89 percent of their diet from forages such as grass and plant leftovers from human food, fiber and biofuel production. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, cattle consume potato leftovers from potato processing. “In general, cattle upcycle human-inedible plants and plant-based leftovers to nutritious and highly desirable beef,” she said. “They largely do not directly compete with human food supplies, but rather add to our total food supply.”

The report identifies beef cattle as a significant contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas from beef cattle represents 2 percent of U.S. emissions, with all agriculture, including beef production, accounting for around 9 percent. By contrast, transportation and electricity generation each account for 28 percent of U.S. emissions.

“The U.S. is the leader in sustainable beef production,” Place said, citing data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. “In fact, U.S. beef’s carbon footprint is 10 to 50 times lower than other regions of the world, due to improved productivity practices and scientific advancements, from better cattle genetics to better animal nutrition.”

She said these improvements made the beef industry more efficient. “In the U.S. the same amount of beef is produced today with one-third fewer cattle as compared to the mid-1970s, and this efficiency trend is expected to grow,” she said. “If the rest of the world were as efficient as the U.S., global beef production could double while cutting the global cattle herd by 25 percent.” Place said that improving global efficiency by about 1 to 1.5 percent per year would keep up with population growth without increasing herd sizes or environmental impact. “EAT-Lancet did not take in account human ingenuity and science to achieve this rate of improvement.”