Knowledge for better food systems

Live Longer? Save the Planet? Better diet could nail both

A study led by University of Minnesota's David Tilman finds that shifting modern diets towards healthier, Mediterranean diets could improve quality of life and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The team synthesized data on the environmental costs of food production, diet trends and population growth, and showed the health and environment costs of continuing our current health trends as compared to shifting to a healthier diet.

Evaluating the changes in diets associated with income between 1961 and 2009, they showed that changing diets for the better would not only reduce habitat degradation and emissions, but would also add about a decade to our lives. 

Abstract

Diets link environmental and human health. Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.

Citation

David Tilman. Michael Clark. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health, Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13959

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While some of the food system challenges facing humanity are local, in an interconnected world, adopting a global perspective is essential. Many environmental issues, such as climate change, need supranational commitments and action to be addressed effectively. Due to ever increasing global trade flows, prices of commodities are connected through space; a drought in Romania may thus increase the price of wheat in Zimbabwe.

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