Should you EAT Lancet?
EAT Lancet was released on 16 January 2019, claiming to be the ‘plant-based’ solution we’ve all been waiting for to save your health and the planet.
However, on closer inspection, it seems to be largely a continuation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that will perpetuate unsustainable growth in the processed products of large scale agriculture.
Rather than being whole foods plant-based, EAT Lancet primarily promotes agricultural grains and processed oils that will most likely leave you hungry and joining the growing ranks of our obese, malnourished and diabetic population.
While these new guidelines may help the planet by making you and your children incapable of procreating, they are unlikely to make you healthier, happier or skinnier in the process.
With about half the calories the coming from carbohydrates in the form of wheat, rice, corn, and soy along with a generous helping of refined oils (chemically extracted from corn and soy), the EAT Lancet diet (whether intentionally or by accident) has stumbled upon the perfect formula that will drive you to consume more of the food-like products that the EAT Foundation group of companies (who are generously bankrolling the whole extravaganza) will benefit from you consuming more of!
There are plenty of opportunities to improve our food system and produce more nutrient dense, high satiety food in a regenerative manner that will reduce our impact on the planet. However, after a closer review of the ‘nutritional guidance’ proposed by EAT Lancet, it’s hard to embrace these recycled dietary guidelines for the world to as the solution we need to lead us out of our current nutritional or environmental wilderness.
What is EAT Lancet?
According to the press release, the EAT initiative was spearheaded by billionaire model-come-doctor Gunhild Stordalen, an animal activist and environmentalist who married hotel mogul Petter Stordalen in Scandinavia’s most expensive wedding.
Gunhild plays the role of the attractive, slim, passionate figurehead of this new ‘plant-based’ movement exceptionally well, and it looks like she is having a great time doing it!
Stordalen is also surprisingly enchanting when she talks about the mandate that they now have to overhaul nutritional and economic policies internationally in partnership with the United Nations.
The nutrition lead for EAT is Harvard’s Walter Willett who is well known for his anti-cholesterol, agriculture-centric dietary approach driven by an aggressive avoidance of saturated fat in favour of unsaturated fats and ‘heart healthy whole grains’.
It’s enchanting and emotive narrative! You would feel like you’re doing something good for the planet and yourself if you believed and followed their advice.
However, if I was to put my conspiracy touting tinfoil hat on for a moment I would say that it is hard to separate the climate science, from the animal activism, from the environmental sustainability, from the religious belief from the epidemiological mumbo jumbo, from nutritional science from the commercial interests of the founding companies trying to win the hearts and minds of the consumers.
It’s likely that there is a bit of everything going on here. We all have our biases and beliefs that we bring to the table in any discussion, particularly when it comes to our food choices which are so wrapped up in our identity.
For more info, you can read the full EAT Lancet report (full title: Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT –Lancet Commission on healthy diets from
sustainable food systems) or check out the launch video here (complete with an emotive poem by 14-year-old environmental ambassador Penelope. You would be heartless if you were not moved her call to action!). There are many points that I agree with and a number that I don’t. I’ll leave you to watch and/or read for yourself and make your own judgement.
There has already been a lot written on the motives and validity of the environmental claims behind the EAT Lancet report so I will not try to duplicate them.
I first came across the EAT Lancet diet when I was asked on Facebook what I thought of it from a nutrient density and satiety perspective so I will try to focus on adding to the nutrition critique side of the discussion.
What is the EAT Lancet diet?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any food lists or meal plans to be seen in the report of the accompanying materials. The essence of the food recommendations of Eat Lancet is shown in the table below from the summary brochure.
The first thing that is disturbing about this is that the second column is incorrectly labelled ‘macronutrient intake’ rather than ‘food group’. You should fail Nutrition 101 for that rather than be published in the Lancet!
Who did the “peer review” for this? Is anyone else a little scared that the people setting international food policy complete with aggressive taxation schemes to enforce them don’t know what a macronutrient is?
If you want to understand what the EAT Foundation are intending to enforce with carbon tax-like international policies in every nursing home, school and government-influenced institution across the world, I recommend that you look past all the talk of “plant-based diets
and pictures of fruits and vegetables and examine the detail in this table to see how they are actually planning to shape the international food system.
To help make sense of the recommendations, I plotted the table of “macro-nutrients” above as a pie chart.
The table below shows the food groups ranked from largest to smallest in terms of
|1. rice, wheat & corn||811||32%|
|2. unsaturated oils||354||14%|
|3. dry beans, lentils & peas||172||6.9%|
|5. tree nuts||149||6.0%|
|9. soy foods||112||4.5%|
|12. palm oil||60||2.4%|
|14. potatoes & cassava||39||1.6%|
|15. tallow & lard||36||1.4%|
|17. beef & lamb||15||0.6%|
In spite of all the fanfare, the EAT Lancet dietary guidance seems to largely be an extension of the current status quo that is maximising profits for the food industry and driving us to eat more than we need to be focusing on heavily subsidised agricultural grains and the oils we extract from them. Other than the doubling down on the recommendation to reduce red meat and eggs (which seems to stem back to the temperance movement trying to stop people masturbating), it seems like big business-as-usual for the food industry.
With Walter Willett at the helm, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that this looks and feels like an extension of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans now proposed for the whole world, complete with talk of United Nations level sanctions and taxes to prevent excess meat consumption.
As shown in the chart below, It’s the added fats and oils (mostly from unsaturated fats) as well as flours and cereals (i.e. rice, wheat and corn) that have exploded in our food system and tracked closely with the rise in obesity of the past half-century. The EAT Lancet guidelines will only serve to solidify and exacerbate this runaway trend!
Consumption of red meat and eggs have already dropped over the past 40 years since the introduction of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the US
While Walter Willett and friends cite concerns over saturated fat and LDL cholesterol, the reduction in red meat and eggs, and the growth in unsaturated fats clearly has not been helping us in spite of fervent belief held by many that there is a causal link between cholesterol in our diet and heart disease. If you want to see how little we actually know about how diet affects our cholesterol and health this 3.5 hour debate between Chris Kresser and Joel Kahn is enlightening.
While Willett talks wistfully and romantically about the benefits of olive oil that was used in healthy Mediterranean diets, olive oil actually makes up less than two per cent of the ‘unsaturated oils’ that we consume while oil extracted from subsidised soy, canola make up more than three-quarters of our vegetable oil consumption.
While consumption of saturated fat has increased marginally over the past century, use of unsaturated fats (which are actively promoted by Eat Lancet) has been on the rise since around 1910 which is when we worked out how to extract oil from soy and corn inexpensively using chemical solvents (typically petroleum-derived hexane).
This chart shows the change in the availability of energy from fat in our food system over the past century. If prioritising unsaturated fat was beneficial for humans (rather than just a cheap and
Unsaturated fats in the form of ‘salad & cooking oils’ have flooded our food system to the tune of an additional 250 calories per day per person over the past four decades.
Again, the EAT Lancet guidelines will only serve to reinforce this trend by cementing “unsaturated oils” as the second food group after agricultural grains.
And it’s not just in America. Vegetable oil consumption is powering on across the world at an alarming rate!
While some people are concerned about fat and others are worried about excess carbs, our obesity epidemic has been powered by growth in both refined carbohydrates and unsaturated oils.
Low protein in combination with a mixture of fat and carbs is essentially the formula for hyper-palatable junk food or “comfort food”.
The table below shows the foods in the USDA food database that have less than 20% protein, greater than 30% carbs and greater than 30% fat sorted by nutrient density (ND Score).
|names||% protein||% fat||% net carbs||% fibre||ND score|
|mashed potatoes (with butter)||7%||42%||43%||7%||33%|
|human breast milk||6%||55%||39%||0%||13%|
|ice cream cone||6%||55%||38%||1%||7%|
|choc chip cookies||4%||42%||52%||2%||4%|
|Girl Scout Cookies||3%||46%||48%||4%||3%|
The only natural foods that fit this formula are breast milk (which helps babies grow quickly) and acorns (which enable squirrels to store fat in autumn leading up to winter). Everything else would be deemed by most people as junk food or comfort food. Whether by accident or good engineering, food manufacturers have discovered that this is perfect formula for miracle grow food.
The increase in unsaturated fat combined with an already carb-laden dietary landscape seems to be facilitating the production of manufactured foods that we just can’t stop eating.
In nature, the combination of fat+carb is only available in autumn to help us eat more to prepare for winter. These special foods combination seem to send a signal to tell our body to build fat to prepare for winter. But our modern food production enables this all year round.
We’re seeing a similar trend in China, with carbs and fat coming together in percentage terms to fuel a similar obesity epidemic.
This trend is also evident in countries that have the means to access more processed foods which tend to be a mixture of fat+carbs rather than high carb or low carb.
This chart from Cian Foley of Don’t Eat for Winter shows obesity rates (green line) tend to increase as our diet consists of a similar combination of carbs+fat.
It’s not so much the carbohydrates or the fat that are problematic, but rather when they are combined in unnatural combinations. It’s much easier to overconsume food when it fills both our glucose and fat stores at the same time. Your body LOVES this combination, and it drives an increase in appetite (or hyperphagia).
So, forgive my cynicism, but I can’t help wondering if the EAT Lancet nutritional recommendations aren’t simply designed to perpetuate (through your local taxation legislation) the high-profit margin foods for the founding member companies of the EAT Foundation which consist of food manufacturers, agriculture producers, fertiliser companies, synthetic meat producers and drug companies (mostly making diabetes medications) who have a keen financial interest in ensuring that the current status quo continues for the foreseeable future!
The thin veneer or ‘greenwashing’ just means that it will continue to dominate our food system into the future for environmentally conscious millennials. By the time we wake up and realise what has happened, it will be too late because this ‘plant-based’ ‘sustainable’ approach will be enshrined in international policy.
By the time we wake up and realise what has happened, it will be too late because this ‘plant-based’ ‘sustainable’ approach will be enshrined in international policy.
What are we trying to achieve?
In engineering, we prepare design specifications, project briefs and design reports that explicitly define why we are doing something, what we want to achieve, our priorities and how we’re going to get there before we start actually building anything.
When it comes to nutrition, we also need to understand why we eat and make informed choices in line with those reasons.
Take a moment to consider if you eat:
- For entertainment?
- For emotional comfort?
- To save the planet?
- To promote regenerative farming practices?
- To minimise cost?
- To help big food manufacturers make more profit?
- To protect animals?
- To align with your religious beliefs?
- To boost your health and avoid disease?
- To get the nutrients you need?
- To lose weight?
- To avoid or reverse diabetes?
- To look good naked?
Some may call it selfish, but I passionately believe that every human has the right to know whether the food they eat contains the nutrients that they require to thrive without having to consume excessive amounts of energy.
One thing I do agree with from the EAT Lancet presentation is that we have an epidemic of malnourished obese people! As shown in the image below (also from the EAT Lancet Launch Presentation), literally billions of people are not getting the micronutrients that they need from the food they eat! We have an epidemic of malnourished obese people who continue to eat more and more nutrient-poor food in a futile effort to get the nutrients they need.
If I were to design a comprehensive system to optimise human nutrition, I would put nutrient density front and centre.
Most people agree that consuming too much energy can lead to obesity, diabetes and metabolic disease. Longevity and avoiding the diseases of ageing revolve around not overeating.
But unfortunately, this is difficult in practice because our appetite ensures we consume enough food, especially when the food we consume is engineered to drive over consumption. The burden of metabolic disease is set to bankrupt our international economy in the foreseeable future.
In order to save the planet, improve human health and rewind the obesity epidemic, rather than focusing on feeding people with food that is cheaper to produce that will cause them to overeat, I think we need to focus on feeding people with quality food that will help them eat less without having to exercise herculean willpower that is destined to fail.
In nature, animals like bears respond to environmental signals (such as food, temperature and light) to gain fat in autumn to survive winter and then lose it in spring (the two images below are the same bear about six months apart). Our current food system keeps us locked in an autumnal fat storage mode which EAT Lancet hopes to enshrine into international policy.
Our recent satiety analysis of half a million days of food diaries found that it’s the combination of starch and fat that drive people to overeat the most while foods with more fibre and protein tend to help people to eat less.
In light of this, putting starches and fats first and second makes the EAT Lancet guidelines seem either dumb or disingenuous (depending on whether or not you think they are doing the bidding of the EAT Foundation group of companies or just incompetent to be giving out nutritional guidance).
As a human, it makes sense to set optimal human nutrition as a priority when making food choices. With that foundation in place, you can make informed decisions about where you get your food and whether you want to consume more plants or animals in your diet, and whether you want to choose the lowest cost or invest in more sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.
While there are some pretty photos of food in the EAT Lancet report, there are no recipes or meal plans, so I figured I’d do my own comparative analysis based on the recommended intake levels of the various food groups.
I’ve taken the USDA nutrient database of 8000+ foods and created a conglomerate “food” for each of the lines in the table above and then rebuilt them into a day of ‘nutrition’ based on the calorie targets provided for each category of foods recommended.
Before we dive into the results, let me explain how the analysis works using the example “nutritional fingerprint” chart below which shows the nutrients per 2000 calories for all the 8000+ foods in the USDA nutritional database.
At the bottom of this chart, you can see that it’s easy to get plenty of vitamin C, B12 and K1 and iron if you eat the foods that are commonly available in the food system.
At the top, you can see that it’s choline (mainly found in egg yolks), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), potassium, magnesium and copper that tend to be harder to obtain in our food system.
I’ve also shown the macronutrient profile of this group of eight thousand foods (carbs, fat, protein and fibre) as well as the nutrient score which is a measure of the quality of this group of foods in terms of nutrients per calorie.
If you want a more thorough primer on nutrient density, you can check out the Nutrient Density 101 article.
Nutrients in animal-based foods
We can use this nutritional analysis to characterise and rank different diets such as animal foods which tend to have less vitamin K1, folate, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium. If we consumed a little bit of all the animal-based foods available, we would get a nutrient score of 60%.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have plant-based foods from which we find it harder to get adequate amounts of omega 3, B12 and choline.
Bioavailability and absorption factors aside, if we consumed a little bit of all the plant-based foods we would get a nutrient score of 50% which is less than the animal-based foods but still pretty solid.
The most nutrient dense foods
Where this analysis becomes really useful is when we prioritise foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients.
As shown in the chart below we get a fantastic nutrient profile when we focus on the foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients and a massive nutrient score of 94%!
The score is due to the fact that 94% of the area to the left of 500% of the adequate intake is filled in. Sure, you may be getting heaps of vitamin K1, C or B12, but the nutrients that are not used by your body will be flushed from your body and therefore do not contribute to your nutrient score.
While you may be wondering why you need five times the recommended intake, keep in mind that the nutrient guidelines relate to the minimum intake of nutrients to prevent diseases of deficiency. While this level of nutrient density is hard to achieve in real life, it seems that people are much more satiated with foods that contain more nutrients per calorie.
It seems our appetite switches off when we get the nutrients we need without excessive calories as demonstrated by the participants in the recent Nutrient Optimiser challenge.
EAT Lancet nutrient analysis
The nutrient fingerprint for the Eat Lancet diet is shown below.
With an abysmal nutrient score of 26%, it is significantly less nutrient dense than the average of all of the foods in the USDA database (56%), plant-based foods (50%) animal-based foods (60%) and way behind the most nutrient dense foods (94%).
The table below shows the EAT Lancet contributing food groups sorted by descending nutrient score.
|food group||nutrient score||protein||fat||net carbs||fibre||energy density (cal/100g)|
|beef & lamb||57%||50%||49%||0%||0%||214|
|dry beans, lentils & peas||44%||25%||8%||49%||18%||165|
|potatoes & cassava||27%||8%||16%||67%||8%||147|
|rice, wheat & corn||23%||11%||6%||77%||7%||302|
|tallow & lard||3%||2%||85%||13%||0%||770|
For completeness, I’ve also shown the micronutrient fingerprint of each of the food groups below.
Vegetables score very well overall in terms of nutrient density (although they are lacking in vitamin B12 and omega 3 which you will need to obtain from animal sources).
According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, vegetables made up 3.8% of the US food intake (or 2% once you remove potatoes) in 2010.
While you might think from all the talk of ‘plant-based diets’ and the pictures of fruits and vegetables in the promotional material that the EAT Lancet is recommending a whole food plant-based diet with heaps of fruits and veggies. However, I was saddened to see that the actual Eat Lancet guidelines propose that you get only 3.1% of your intake from vegetables (you may need to look closely to see the little grey wedge in the chart below).
Vegetables come in at number ten on the list of recommended food groups in the EAT Lancet report, just before chicken and palm oil but
I have included some images from the EAT Lancet promotional materials below. Does it look like they’re promoting a whole foods plant-based diet to you?
I suppose what is being proposed is technically a ‘plant-based diet’ if you consider corn, soy and wheat (grown using large scale agricultural practices, mono-cropping and large doses of fertilisers and chemical pesticides) and the oils that you can extract from them using chemical solvents as ‘plant-based’.
EAT Lancet is good news if you didn’t like to eat your veggies. No one will be pressuring you to eat your greens based on this guidance!
Seafood is quite nutritious. However, fish only makes up 1.6% of the EAT Lancet recommended diet profile.
If you’re concerned about saturated fat and/or red meat from an environmental perspective, you could design a very nutritious pescitarian diet by combining fish and vegetables and avoid the nutrient-poor grains and refined oils.
Although the EAT Lancet guidelines only allow the equivalent of 1.5 eggs per week, they are actually quite nutritious and a highly bio-available source of protein. It can be hard to get adequate choline to support neurological function without eggs in your diet.
Next in line is red meat which has a solid nutrient profile. It appears that the discouraging of red meat is due to a fear of saturated fat and the environmental cost of raising cattle in a confined feedlot.
While red meat and regenerative agriculture is a complex topic, I recommend checking out these podcasts:
- Feeding the World with Regenerative Agriculture with Dr. Allen Williams
- The Truth About Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Livestock Production with Frank Mitloehner
- The Vegetarian Myth with Lierre Keith.
Many people believe that the modern agricultural practices used to raise cattle (i.e. confined animal feeding operations), as well as the large scale monoculture farms that are reliant on fossil fuel-based fertilisers and chemical pesticides, are unsustainable. However, it may be wiser to look at how we can improve current practices rather than trying to abandon meat.
As mentioned by Walter Willett in the Eat Lancet launch presentation, growing grains with fertilisers to transport to feedlots to feed cattle that are amped up on hormones and antibiotics is far from ideal. However, cattle can graze land that cannot be farmed and can also have a positive influence on the health of the entire ecosystem.
While the EAT Lancet’s 15% protein target would meet the minimum daily intake of protein, it’s worth noting that this is only the minimum required amount to prevent deficiency.
Our satiety analysis suggests that people who consume more protein experience greater satiety and tend to eat less spontaneously.
Your body craves nutrients, including protein, and will continue to eat until it gets what it needs. I think you should consume as much protein as your body craves. If you’re trying to lose body fat, then prioritising a higher protein percentage can be a useful hack.
The image below shows where the Eat Lancet diet sits on the scale of fat loss vs fat gain (courtesy of Ted Naiman) in terms of protein : energy ratio.
After spending a LOT of time looking at how we can optimise our food choices for nutrient density, I have found again and again that you cannot create a diet that has high levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids that is low in protein.
Protein simply comes along with foods that have plenty of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. By intentionally avoiding protein we will inadvertently decrease the nutrient density of our diet.
While chicken intake is prioritised above red meat by the EAT Lancet guidelines, it is actually slightly less nutritious. This is likely in part because chickens are often grown very quickly on grains, under light whereas beef cattle are raised on grass, at least for at least the first part of their life.
Dry beans, lentils & peas
Lentils, beans and peas can be a good alternative source of protein if you chose not to eat animal products. However, they are less nutrient dense overall as well as being less bioavailable. You will need to consume a lot more energy to get the protein you need from beans, lentils and peas.
Soy is another protein alternative if you’re not consuming meat and is used in many meat substitutes. If your diet relies on large amounts of soy, you will need to ensure your get omega 3, B12, vitamin A and choline from other sources or consider supplementing.
If your fertility is of interest, you may want to limit your intake of soy due to concerns of high levels of estrogen.
As shown in the ‘nutrient wheels’ below from Spectracell, nutrient density is critical to fertility.
A recent study out of the vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist owned Loma Linda University showed that vegetarians tend to have a lower sperm count.
Avoiding animal products in favour of refined grains and refined seed oils may actually save the planet from humans by slowing your ability to procreate. But I think it’s only fair that you have the opportunity to give conscious consent to castration through diet before participating!
Dairy is a good source of nutrition, although it can also be energy dense and hence not a great idea if your goal is weight loss.
Peanuts are an interesting choice as a full food group to make up 5.7% of the EAT Lancet calorie intake (nearly double the recommended intake of vegetables), presumably because they were focusing on unsaturated fats and avoiding saturated fats (or because Harvard has received a lot of funding from the Peanut Institute).
They contain a moderate level of nutrients but are energy dense so not a great choice when it comes to satiety and weight loss.
Potatoes and cassava
Potatoes and cassava have a moderate nutrient profile and are a good source of energy, but not especially nutrient dense. Potatoes (often mixed with refined oils in the form of hyper-palatable chips) currently make up about 2% of our diet and more than half of the current vegetable intake.
Tree nuts (e.g. almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios and pine nuts) are again not exceptionally nutrient dense but were presumably chosen to focus on unsaturated fats rather than saturated.
Rice, wheat and corn
The most puzzling emphasis of the EAT Lancet food recommendations is to focus on rice, wheat and corn (32% of calories) which are relatively nutrient-poor as shown in the chart below.
These foods are typically very cheap because they are heavily subsidised. This means that there is a lot of money to be made from using these foods throughout the food system as the foundation of pretty much you find in the isles of your supermarket.
The unfortunate reality is that nutrient-dense fresh food has no chance of competing on a price basis!
If you were serious about improving the health of the international population the most obvious thing would be to find a way to wind back the overly generous agricultural subsidies on grains that were designed to encourage farmers to produce cheap calories.
In a Utopian world where people were serious about improving population health using a plant-based diet, these subsidies would instead be applied to nutrient dense vegetables instead and the nutrient poor products of mass agriculture penalised.
As monocultures, rice, wheat and corn have a devastating effect on the environment, eliminating all other species from massive areas of highly depleted soil that yield the same crops year after year with only the addition of fertilisers and a narrow spectrum of nutrients that support speed of growth rather than the broad range of nutrients required for optimal human nutrition.
If your diet contains high amounts of rice, wheat and corn then you may need to supplement the following nutrients to achieve an adequate intake:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin A
- Mega 3
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin E
- Pantothenic acid
It’s also worth noting that a diet high in grains will contain phytates which will affect the bioavailability of absorption of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron, so you may need to check for deficiencies and supplement with these to make up for what your diet will be lacking.
Why the EAT Lancet guidelines would prioritise this nutrient deficient group of foods if human health was a priority is beyond me.
You may be surprised to see that fruit is not a great source of nutrients. If your diet relies heavily on fruit, there is also a long list of essential micro-nutrients that you will need to supplement with.
Also astonishing is the fact that almost a quarter of the calories are being awarded to empty calories in the form of unsaturated oils, sweeteners, palm oil, tallow and lard.
While I have no issue with consuming dietary fat that comes with food (e.g. eggs, meat and fish), recommending significant amounts of added refined fat as an ingredient does not make any sense (unless you are knowingly giving a free pass to food manufacturers to keep doing what they’re currently doing)!
Let’s take a moment to compare the ingredients in an Oreo Cookie (which follows the formula for most processed junk food) with the EAT Lancet nutritional guidelines:
- Sugar (Eat Lancet #8 @ 4.8%)
- Flour (EAT Lancet #1 @ 32%)
- Canola Oil (EAT Lance #2 @ 14%)
- Cornstarch (EAT Lancet #1 @ 32%)
- Soy (EAT Lancet #9 @ 4.5%)
If you want to improve the quality of your diet, it makes a lot of sense to avoid these refined food ingredients that are only really good for food manufacturers because they provide cheap energy and drive you to consume more of their food-like products.
To help you understand the nutritional consequences of these proposed guidelines I have shown the EAT Lancet nutrient fingerprint (left), the average of all foods in the USDA database (centre) and the most nutrient-dense foods (right) side by side. If you happened to feel that obtaining adequate essential nutrients from your diet was important to your health which one would you choose?
The chart below shows a plot of satiety score vs nutrient density score. If you are concerned about health, diabetes and obesity, you will want to focus on foods towards the top right. The hyper-palatable low nutrient foods that will be enshrined by the EAT Lancet guidelines are in the bottom left. (If you want to dig into this data a little more you can check out the interactive Tableau version of this chart here.)
We have also created the Never Hungry web app that you can use to check the nutrient density score and satiety score of your favourite foods to know if they will provide the nutrients you need and help you to feel full without having to consume excessive amounts of calories.
How does the EAT Lancet diet compare to other options?
The table below shows a comparison of a wide range of dietary approaches that can be optimised to focus on nutrient density compared to the EAT Lancet recommendations.
The EAT Lancet recommendations are not just less than the food choices that have been optimised for nutrient density, they have a significantly worse nutrient density score than if you just chose randomly from all the foods available!
In addition to the macronutrient profiles and nutrient score, I have also shown energy density which is the highest for the EAT Lancet foods! Foods such as doughnuts and cakes lead to an inferior satiety outcome and overeating! The EAT Lancet diet will provide you with a whopping 355 calories per 100g of food compared to the average of 231 calories per gram for all food and 100 calories per 100 gram for the most nutrient dense foods. If you are at all concerned about the obesity and diabetes epidemic this should be a concern!
You don’t have to follow a particular nutritional belief system to consume a nutrient dense diet.
We can formulate a high carbohydrate diet that is nutrient dense.
We can also formulate a low carb diet that is nutrient dense.
Foods that are an unnatural combination of carbs+fat send a signal that winter is coming and you need to STORE FAT NOW!
If you can get your carbs to greater than say 60% of calories (i.e. no added fats), you will find it very hard to overeat (e.g. plain rice, plain potato, broccoli, tomato etc). These high carbohydrate low-fat foods would be found in temperate climates or in summer.
Conversely, if you reduce your carbohydrate intake to less than a third of your calories, you will tend to eat less spontaneously . These foods are what you might find in colder climates or in winter.
However, we naturally gravitate to the combination of fat+carbs that drives us to eat more. Before we learned to process foods, this food combination was only available for a short time leading up to winter, but now thanks to the food industry they are available to you all 24/7/365.
With 46% carbohydrates, the EAT Lancet guidelines will put you smack in the middle of the hyperpalatable one that will cause you to eat more!
Before we learned to extract oil from soy and corn using hexane, it was generally hard to get fat and starches at the same time. Grains were harvested in summer/autumn, with fat from animals available in winter when there were minimal carbs. But now we can combine ‘unsaturated fats’ with refined starches all year long.
The satiety analysis suggests that this formula is incredibly powerful. Humans, who are programmed to survive through times of famine and scarcity are helpless to resist these foods. This is great for agricultural companies, big food manufacturers and companies producing diabetes drugs, but not good for the individual trying to lose weight and get healthy.
What is wrong with our food system?
If you stand back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that the dawn of agriculture around ten thousand years ago has had a massive influence on human population growth.
Up until then, humans existed as hunter-gatherers and consumed the animals and plants that were available. This depended heavily on their location and season. There was a symbiotic balance. Our population did not grow beyond what the earth could sustain. But once we learned to domesticate grains, we stopped moving around, settled down, started to get fatter and make more babies.
This transition facilitated a serious uptick in our rate of population growth and arguably the start of our nutritional downfall. (note: The lack of movement is not just a problem for sedentary humans. Growing the same crops year after year with imported nutrients and fertilisers and raising cattle in a confined feedlot with imported feed is central to the environmental and biodiversity issues. It’s not going to be simple to unwind the situation we have found ourselves in, but progressing regenerative agricultural practices to reconnect crops, animals and people is critical to solving our health and environmental problems.)
Our population growth has continued at a fairly steady pace for the last ten thousand years until the injection of vast amounts of fossil-fuel based fertilisers and aggressive farming practices in the 1960s brought about another paradigm shift in our ability to produce calories to support population growth.
After a number of major wars and devastating global events, farming practices and policies were overhauled in the 1960s to provide more calories more cheaply to feed America.
America’s farming practices and nutritional policies (e.g. 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans prepared by the US Dept of Agriculture) combined with an increase in the use of chemical fertilisers (from non-renewable fossil fuels) facilitated growth in available energy in the form of rice, wheat and corn as well as unsaturated oils that we extract from these crops using chemical solvents.
As well as the intended increase in the production of calories, we have seen a significant drop in the nutritional content of our food and a severe uptick in obesity.
The reduction in Vitamin A and B12 in our food system shown below align with the release of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encouraged people to consume less meat and eggs (apparently due to concerns of saturated fat).
The longer-term decrease in calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium seem to align with the change to more aggressive farming practices, mono-cropping and the use of fertilisers which are in effect pumping energy out of the ground and into our mouths via agricultural crops to overfill your fat stores to make you sick and diabetic.
We have worked out how to produce calories so quickly and cheaply in a way that drives us to over consume them to the point of crippling our international economies with the health burden while also providing a diminishing nutritional return.
The world will be an interesting place in 2050 if we continue to grow more and bigger humans. Perhaps it would be wiser to focus on quality rather than quantity by focusing on the types of nutrient dense foods that we thrive on rather than taxing quality food beyond the reach of most people.
How do you rate the chances of reversing this trend by enshrining the foods that have caused it?
We are effectively pumping fertiliser into the ground and getting out cheap nutrient-poor food to grow more humans more quickly. This shift to more and more aggressive agricultural practices has been a raging success and enabled us to fuel growth in humanity (both in number and size).
It’s also an inevitable reality that this party cannot continue indefinitely.
The non-renewable resources that we are pouring into our grain, corn and soy fields will run out eventually.
At some point in the not too distant future, we will run out of fossil fuels to quickly grow our crops and feed our animals. Once this happens, we won’t be able to feed the massive population that our modern unnatural agricultural practices have made possible. It may not be pretty if we can’t create another option and it all comes crashing down.
While feeding a future population of ten billion people is a daunting (and potentially a highly lucrative) challenge. Whether or not the companies that have profited off this agricultural boom over the past fifty years will be able to change the trajectory by enshrining business-as-usual food guidelines with a thin veneer of greenwashing is doubtful.
What is the solution?
If you want to think globally but act locally for you and your family, then what is the solution?
- Prioritise nutrient density. Food that contains higher levels of nutrients will probably not be grown using the high yield low nutrient practices that are so damaging for our environment and unsustainable.
- Eat plants and animals that were grown for quality rather than speed. Foods produced with sustainability in mind will be more likely to focus on regenerative farming practices.
- Learn more about the food you eat.
- Get to know the people who grow your food.
- Invest in regenerative agriculture.
- Prioritise food that tastes good. If it doesn’t need a concoction of chemical flavours and preservatives to disguise the lack of nutrients is more likely to be grown for quality rather than speed.
- Prioritise satiety. Eating less because you are satisfied with nutritious food will be good for you and good for the planet.