Nutrition strategies supporting planetary health

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Sustainable diets are the solution, said Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, at the 2020 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

Global warming is impacting the world’s food supply, Purdy said. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report said global emissions are reaching record level, leading to air pollution, heatwaves, floods, and risk to food security. Human influence has been established, Purdy said.

The food system is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to biodiversity loss, freshwater use, land-system change, and chemical pollution. The food supply also impacts human health, Purdy said.

“The impact on the health of our food system also affects the health of our patients,” she said.

We need a more sustainable diet that encourages healthful dietary patterns, reductions in food loss and waste, and improvements in sustainable food production practices, Purdy said.

Patients and practitioners alike may be overwhelmed by this prospect. Some may believe they have to be vegan or eliminate favorite foods. Purdy said animal foods are more environmentally intensive than plant-based foods, but she does not believe vegan diets are necessary for planetary health. In fact, partly replacing meat and dairy with plants can reduce food-related emissions by more than 30 percent, she said.

Purdy encourages practitioners and patients to start with simple swaps and additions to planet-friendly foods. She encourages patients to eat more whole food plant-based proteins, including:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Grains
  • Nuts and seeds

This will not require a complete overhaul, but a reasonable shift to sustainable dietary habits, Purdy said. “No one has to go vegan,” said Purdy. “No one has to become a different person.”

Purdy suggests incorporating climate change issues in intake forms. For example, ask questions about how climate change has affected the patient, what connections they see between their health and climate change, and offering to make recommendations around health that are also beneficial for the environment. “Start to really normalize this with your patients,” she said.  

The EAT Lancet Commission, an organization focusing on dietary guidelines for planetary health, offers their own plate diagram, that may be a useful visual for patients. Their ideal plate includes half fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and small amounts of starchy vegetables, dairy foods, animal protein, plant-sources protein, unsaturated plant oils and added sugars. Their summary report includes a precise breakdown of their intake recommendations.

Purdy believes in simplifying the shift for patients. Offer recipes, easy options like canned foods, and recipe examples. Some creative ways to incorporate beans include:

  • Chili
  • Bean burgers
  • Lentil soup
  • Hummus and bean dips
  • Add to salads
  • Combine with meaty flavors

Some creative ways to use nuts and seeds include:

  • Throw on top of cereals and yogurt
  • Add to grains
  • Sprinkle in salads
  • Bake into muffins
  • Make nut milks
  • Add to smoothies

The bottom line is to ease into transitions, Purdy said. “Start with adding, offering alternatives, and go from there.”