Nutritionists, fitness, medical and public health professionals continue to explore the link between healthy eating and healthy living, prompting public interest. The benefits of adopting a healthy diet in order to support our general health and wellbeing is becoming increasingly popular. Arguably, this is due to the growing number of public figures, influencers and others who use social media platforms to document their ‘healthy living’ journeys and experiences. As an avid follower of other public health and fitness professionals, I too have been in search of a diet that supports and enhances my sporting and fitness ability.
During this period of ‘lockdown’, it is no surprise that food is at the forefront of our consciousness. Where can we get an adequate food supply? How is it sourced? Is the food that we are consuming safe to eat? Further, where there is less choice available in our local supermarkets, we are left wondering how we can make appropriate choices that will help us to achieve nutritional goals. But, we should also be concerned about the impact that the food industry is having on our planet. Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask in this regard would be, how we can achieve our nutritional goals (‘fuel our bodies’) without causing further harm to the planet?
The way food is produced (use of land for agriculture, and the over fishing of our oceans) (Harari, 2015) fails to provide the world’s population with adequate food and nutrition, whilst contributing significantly to climate change and the destruction of the planet (EAT- Lancet Commission, 2019).
Scientists, climate change lobbyists, medical and public health professionals, academics, and more have been working on ways in which humans for generations to come, can live well without causing damage to the planet and human, animal and plant life. They describe the current state of the planet as being at the ‘tipping point’ (Steffen e t al, 2015). This means that if we do not change our habits and live within safe boundaries (described as planetary boundaries) which seek to resolve issues faced with ‘food’, ‘climate’, ‘pollution’, ‘healthcare’ and ‘biodiversity’ (the rapid increase in extinction rates) (Steffen et al. 2015) the planet will become inhabitable for all species.
The planetary boundaries (‘climate change’, ‘ocean acidification’, ‘bio-diversity’, ‘stratospheric ozone’, ‘bio- chemical’, ‘fresh water’, ‘land use’ and ‘atmospheric aerosol’) (Rockstorm, 2009) are a public health concern. The effects on the global population include an increase in respiratory illnesses such as Asthma and the increased risk of exposure to diseases that are caused by harmful parasites such as malaria (Steffen, 2015). Ultimately, we can change the effects of our behaviour on our planet if we change our ‘business as usual’ approach (Macy and Johnstone, 2012).
This article explores how changes to our eating habits, food production and supply streams can improve human health and wellbeing as well as saving the planet. Saving the planet refers to (reducing the effects of climate change which causes changes to weather systems, reducing extinction rates and making the planet a safe place for humans and other species to co-exist).
Business as Usual
Today, 40% of land is appropriated annually, to feed livestock for the meat industry and to grow crops. Increasing amounts of fertilizers are used to grow crops to meet global demand, which effects natural pollination, kills insect species and pollutes the soil which enters the water cycle and in particular our oceans. This reduces the carbon ions in the oceans killing marine life. An increasingly, dangerous amount of fresh water supply is used to support agriculture. Over 90% of our oceans have been over fished (this food source is in rapid decline), leading to an increase in prices of Fish and other seafood’s in your local supermarkets. According to the EAT- Lancet report the food produced on a global scale does not meet the demand of the global population, this has led to large numbers of malnutrition in some low-middle income countries, despite a 1/3 of food produced being wasted.
At this rate, future generations will inherit a planet where a large number of the global population will be malnourished and there will be high rates of over nutrition leading to obesity (and related illness). People will be more susceptible to illness and disease and there is likely to be a spike in premature deaths.
In order to ‘fuel’ our bodies and maintain a healthy weight (and prevent non communicable diseases such as fatty liver disease and type II diabetes) the current recommendation is that we consume a fixed amount of calories/ kilo-joules which is balanced by the energy used (through exercise and general gross motor movements). For men this is approximately 2,500 kilo-calories (10,500 kilo-joules) daily and 2,000 kilo-calories (8,4000 kilo-joules) for women (NHS, 2018). The number of calories that we consume changes depending on lifestyle choices and our health and fitness journey.
Those of us trying to lose weight will opt for a calorie deficit diet, where we will consume less calories than energy used. For those of us who engage in regular exercise we know that we have to adjust our calories accordingly. For muscle gain you ideally need to increase your daily calorie intake by 1000 (Morton et al 2018). Equally, we must pay attention to the number of macro-nutrients that we consume in order to sustain or achieve our fitness and health goals.
If we take our example of someone who wants to gain muscle mass, the current recommended advice is to consume a diet that consists of rapid acting proteins (white fish, poultry, some red meats, proteins perhaps a protein supplement). These foods reportedly speed up cell growth and muscle repair. You will also want to make sure you have a good sources of carbohydrates that slowly convert to energy and prevents spikes in insulin and a build-up of lipids (fat cells). You may choose to include brown rice, whole-wheat breads and pastas and good fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocado all of which reduces sugar storage in the body and reduces feelings of hunger (Helms, 2014).
Commentators argue that this type of diet, often referred to as a ‘typical western diet’ (Kopp, 2019) is not sustainable, not only for the planet but for the prevention of disease, illness and athletic performance
The Flexitarian Diet (…The Great Unravelling)
The Eat-Lancet Commission in their exploration for a sustainable diet for all, believe that they have found a diet that can not only improve the general health and wellbeing of the global population but also keep within safe planetary boundaries. They propose the global population adopt a Flexitarian (Planetary Health Diet) which they argue needs to and can be achieved by 2050.
The Flexitarian (plant based diet), is a diet that mostly consists of plant-based foods. The Flexitarian diet corroborates findings in recent studies that suggest that plant based diets improve cognitive function, athletic performance and the overall health and wellbeing of the individual (Medawar, 2019). However, EAT-Lancet is not proposing that we do not consume any animal products. They suggest we consume some animal products in small quantities, only unsaturated fats, and fewer processed meals and meals that contain less added sugars (EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019). The authors argue that the evidence shows that this will reduce carbon emissions (which will reduce the greenhouse effect/global warming which leads to climate change) restoring the planets weather systems to occur in their natural state (Haines and Ebi, 2019). Equally, it will reduce land derogation (making land suitable for farming), instead, farming will occur on land that is already in use. Subsequent reforesting of these lands will encourage the development of natural eco-systems and reducing soil pollution (EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019).
Like other plant based diets, EAT- Lancet propose that the flexitarian diet will improve cognitive and psychological function, as well as reducing depression and feelings of low mood and anxiety (Toumpanakis, 2018). The risk of developing type II diabetes cholesterol, heart problems and the risk of obesity reduces. Inflammation reduces, improving gastro-intestinal health and immunity.
The benefits for those who engage in regular exercise and /or athletes is just as impressive. The increase in plant based protein, and the other raw macro-nutrients will fuel performance and endurance and increase muscle/ cell repair and recovery. Having adopted a flexitarian diet in recent months, the benefits in terms of my athletic performance were almost instantaneous. By consuming a diet high in seeds, pulses, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, natural herbs and spices and (occasional meat and poultry) (EAT- Lancet Commission, 2019) my recovery time from a weight-lifting or HIIT session has sped up.
The muscle aches and build-up of lactic acid are also less intense. The number of reps in each superset have also increased and I am able to hold my form throughout the workout. Lean muscle is more defined due to my metabolic rate speeding up burning energy and reducing fat (Medawar, 2019).
Changing your Diet
Making changes to our diet can be challenging. The hashtags ‘#cleaneats’, ‘#eatclean’ ‘#eatcleanstaygreen’ and ‘#foodprep’ are all over social media. But, how do you get started? Keeping a food dairy for 3-5 days. By writing down everything that you eat and drink you will be able to identify where changes can be made. It is important that if you are going to make this change, you keep an accurate food dairy. In the first week of food prep (planning your meals in advance) it is essential that you get use to balancing the right amount of macro-nutrients suitable for your body type and activity level (Miller, 2019). In order to achieve the goals discussed in the EAT LANCET report the authors advise that there needs to be imminent stakeholder (e.g. governments, non-government organisations, individuals and public health professionals) input at local and international level.
Planetary health has gained more media attention in recent years and the government is now taking action to reduce carbon emissions and reverse climate change (Department for Environment, 2019), but much more needs to be done. In my roles as a specialist community public health nurse and a personal fitness trainer, I am in a privileged position where I can promote healthy diets and lifestyle changes. I am able to share the physical and health benefits that changes to our diet can have and the positive impact that this will have on our planet. You do not need to be a health or fitness professional to be able to effectively contribute to this topic. We can all have this conversation! We need to take individual responsibility for our health and the health of the planet. It goes back to that age old saying, ‘if you want to make a change in the world, start with yourself’.
Cliché I know! But in order to prevent our planet from tipping over the tipping point we need to take action now.
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