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Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian diets boost lifespan and slash emissions

19 November 2014

A recent study, as published in the journal Nature by researchers at the University of Minnesota, has given weight to the argument that the traditionally termed “western” lifestyle diet is having not only a deleterious effect on health of the world’s population, but also on the health of the world itself.

The generally accepted understanding of the Western diet is mainly linked to the excess consumption of refined sugars, fats, oils and resource/land intense agricultural products such as beef and pork. This diet lifestyle has well documented links to an increased rate of diabetes, obesity and some cancers, it is also now more clearly understood to be linked to increased carbon emissions.

The research looked at the food trends in the one hundred most populated countries over 48 years, from 1961 to 2009, documenting a period of increased income and urbanisation for the populations, as well as changes in diet. It would appear that as traditional diets were replaced by the Western style diet the results from the study were such that, by 2050, should current trends continue, a prediction of an 80% increase in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions globally would be seen to meet increased food production and global land clearing demands. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower life expectancies.

The finding that an increase in people consuming a Western style “unhealthy” diet shows a decrease in the traditional “healthy” diet foodstuffs and a reduction in life expectancy may not come as a surprise to some people. But the link to the health of the environment may do. The combined information on the environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth, showed the link between human and environmental health. The effect of this current diet trending and how strategically altering food choices could reduce, not only incidence of numerous health issues, but also agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and habitat degradation as well is clear.

It is suggested that people’s diets in 2050 would contain fewer servings of healthier food sources such as fruits and vegetables, but about 60 percent more “empty calories” and 25 to 50% more pork, poultry, beef, dairy and eggs. The conclusion being that "If this trend continues, we will be around 30% more people on Earth in 2050, but the carbon emissions will increase by 80% compared to the levels we have now". In a world where what we eat is as important for the environment as what cars we drive and where the food industry contributes ever increasing carbon emissions this trend is potentially becoming endemic in the cities of an increasingly urban population, with countries such as Mexico, China and Tunisia show particular increases.

However there are three diets it is reported which can potentially help reverse this trend. The traditional Mediterranean, pescatarian or vegetarian diets are seen as a more environmentally friendly option for the world as a whole, with these diets likely to slow diabetes incidence, increase lifespan, and reduce levels of cardiovascular disease, as well as potentially slowing emission increases and benefiting biodiversity, on account of the reduced production emission, land clearing and resultant species extinctions. Indeed the study would suggest a reduction in incidence of, approximately, type II diabetes by 25 percent, cancer by 10 percent and death from heart disease by 20% relative to the Western omnivore diet, with variations on the diets used in the scenario potentially offering greater benefit.
"We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage," said study author David Tilman, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences and resident fellow at the Institute on the Environment. He also suggests that the “destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannahs as large as half of the United States” could be prevented by an alteration in people’s eating habits.

If it seems a simple solution it is not, since these benefits are only applicable if the change in diet is widely adopted.  The implementation of a widespread dietary solution to solve the diet, environment and health challenges of today would require a global response to buck the trend which is no easy endeavor. The authors of the study do raise the point that numerous factors do go into diet choices and that the alternative diets are already a part of the lives of a vast amount of people, but the global trend and increase in demand for unhealthier diet lifestyles in growing urban populations is having a negative impact on global health in more than one way. [Science Daily] [Euractiv]

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