Around the world, the failure of official councils to provide sustainable and healthy diets is shocking, scientists say.
Official dietary advice around the world is harming both the environment and people's health, according to scientists who have carried out the most comprehensive evaluation of national dietary guidelines to date.
Food is responsible for a quarter of the emissions that cause the climate crisis and millions of premature deaths. The analysis evaluated all available dietary guidelines, covering 85 countries and all regions of the world. The researchers said that the failure of governments to help people eat good diets was "shocking."
In all the countries studied, the study found that the diets people are eating today contain more red and processed meat than recommended by national guidelines or the World Health Organization, and very few fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains in all but some countries.
However, even if these guidelines were followed, the research showed that only two countries had dietary guidelines in line with the health, climate and pollution goals set by governments.
The researchers also evaluated the impact of a "planetary health diet," published by scientists in 2019, which recommends reducing red meat consumption by three-quarters in developed countries. Adopting this diet, and using campaigns and regulations to help people meet its requirements, would lead to large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the number of diet-related early deaths from diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
In the UK, following the Planetary Health Diet would reduce food-related emissions by 70% and diet-related deaths by 104,000 each year, compared to people's current diets. In the US, where the study found that the actual diet of the average citizen does not meet national guidelines for any food group, emissions would drop 74% and deaths by 585,000. The emissions cut would be even bigger in Australia - 86% - with a drop of 31,000 deaths.
"Countries are surprisingly bad at helping their populations eat what they say is a good diet," said Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford, who led the study. "It was really shocking."
"Most governments avoid providing clear recommendations on limiting (meat and dairy) consumption, despite their exceptionally high emissions and use of resources," he said. "The evidence for the environmental impact of our dietary choices is mounting, so it's really essential that official dietary advice is in line with that."
The research, published in the British Medical Journal, evaluated dietary guidelines against five environmental goals and one health goal that governments have signed up to. The health goal is to reduce premature deaths from non-infectious diseases by a third, while the environmental goals related to the 2C limit on global heating established by the Paris agreement, the destruction of wilderness areas, the use of fresh water and nitrogen and phosphate pollution from agriculture.
The national dietary guidelines of only two of the 85 countries, Indonesia and Sierra Leone, were compatible with all six targets, while the guidelines of 74 countries did not meet the Paris target.
The researchers recommend that nations establish new dietary guidelines in line with current science, including “strict” limits for beef and dairy in countries where they are eaten in large quantities. Governments should also provide examples of healthy and sustainable diets, including those based on plants.
"But even the best dietary guidelines are meaningless if they are not supported by specific health promotion programs," said Springmann. “These really need a much bigger investment. Much stronger regulation of the entire food system is also needed, including food businesses. ”
Governments also buy a lot of food, in schools, for example, and could use this to encourage changes in diets. Public sector caterers that serve billions of meals a year in UK schools, universities, hospitals and residences have already pledged to reduce the amount of meat they serve by 20%.
"Overall, the planetary health diet appears superior in terms of reducing mortality from noncommunicable diseases and reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Lukas Schwingshackl, of the Institute of Evidence in Medicine at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and Two colleagues in a comment in the BMJ.
"However, adopting the 'planetary health diet' globally would not be affordable for many in low-income countries without economic growth and better local food production and supply," they said.
Springmann said that people in poor countries often eat monotonous diets based on a single grain or root, and that any addition of other foods would increase costs. He said the question was how to help improve these diets: “Do you want them to adopt a more western diet that will be unhealthy and unsustainable? Or do you want them to make the transition to a healthy and sustainable diet in the medium term?