Diets Are Becoming Less Healthy, Less Sustainable Across the Globe

Raw meat on dishes
Suzanne Clements/Stocksy United

Our food is making us sick, wreaking ecosystem-level havoc, and driving global climate change. And worldwide, eaters are continuing to shift to poorer diets, worsening this trajectory.

According to a study by David Tillman and Michael Clark at the University of Minnesota, diets in 2050 will contain 60 percent more empty calories, 25-50 percent more pork, poultry, beef, dairy, and eggs, and fewer servings of fruits and vegetables if current dietary shifts continue.

Globally, these changes in dietary patterns “are greatly increasing the incidence of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies,” according to the research. These diseases represent enormous health costs for consumers developing and developed countries alike, which aren’t accounted for at the grocery checkout line.

“Previous analyses have looked at the effects of diet in individual countries, but we are the first to examine the global impacts on both human health and the environment of diet as it is now and as it is becoming,” says Tillman. “We gathered information on dietary trends and environmental impacts for 90 percent of the global population. Our data let us see how diets, health and the environment have been changing and where they are going.”

The research addresses a “trilemma” of diet, environment, and public health, revealing that changing dietary patterns are indeed leading consumers with rising incomes to eat more calories, especially from meat and animal products, across the globe.

The shift in global diets is resulting in externalized costs to human health and the environment, according to organizations such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Agriculture & Food (AgFood) project.

The shift in global diets toward meat and dairy products driven drastic changes in water use and is likely to continue unchecked; current growth rates of agricultural demands for freshwater are unsustainable, according to the UN.

Meat and dairy production are particularly water-intensive; the water footprint per calorie of beef production is 20 times higher than for cereals. And livestock greatly increases pressure on forestland through grazing, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Some of what we found is not surprising, but the global implications are frightening,” Tilman says. “Most of us have heard that some diets are healthier, that eating too many calories is bad for you and that red meat harms the environment. We were surprised at how rapidly and consistently diets were changing around the world, how massively this would impact global health and how much it would increase global greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of tropical forests and other ecosystems.”

The authors conclude that alternative diets can help to simultaneously address urgent environmental and health concerns. “Only better diets can prevent a massive global epidemic of chronic noncontagious disease,” says Tillman.

“These same diets would also protect the environment. Since big food companies produce so much of what is eaten, we need them to be part of this solution. By developing, producing and advertising foods that are healthy and tasty, these companies can help their customers, the earth and their bottom line. It is a niche waiting to be filled.”

Sustainable diets not only contribute to a lower environmental footprint, but also help to rein in externalized health costs. Many organizations, such as the Sustainable Food Trust and the Lexicon of Sustainability, are working on True Cost Accounting (TCA) methods, which aim to place a value on externalized costs of food production to the environment and human health.

In the United States, sustainability may play a role in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time, revealing a shift in policy focus to more systemic solutions and an intersectional approach to food and farming. Recognizing the impact of diet on health and the environment, 49 academic centers, health advocacy groups, and environmental advocacy groups sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adopt the sustainability recommendations developed by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). 

Many organizations are working to promote alternative diets and educate consumers about both health and environmental effects of food choices. Many are fighting climate change. And many others are researching the true costs of dietary patterns and advocating for policy changes that correct the impacts of these choices on the societal level. This work is vital not only to human health but also to the health of the planet.

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