A new report claims that a dietary tool can be used to simultaneously reduce unhealthy eating and climate change impacts. The “double-pyramid”, which takes into account cultural differences in the consumption of food, has already been used with success in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, researchers say.
“The resulting Double Health and Climate Pyramid is offered as a tool to inform daily food choices and encourage dietary patterns that are healthy for humans and more sustainable for the planet. The Health Pyramid orders food according to frequency of consumption, with the base including those that should be eaten more often (fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains). Legumes and fish are the preferred sources of protein, while red meat and high glycemic foods should be consumed in moderation. The Climate Pyramid shows that the production of animal-based products makes the highest contribution to climate change, while plant-based products make the smallest. As a result, the Double Pyramid corroborates the message that through a varied and balanced diet we can promote our health, longevity, and wellbeing, while reducing our carbon footprint. In fact, foods that should be consumed more frequently for our health also have a low climate impact,” according to a statement from Barilla.
Food affects pretty much every aspect of our life, from our health and wellbeing to our environment and economic development. But we’re not being exactly responsible when it comes to our food. Over 690 million people lack sufficient food, and economic projections say that the pandemic may add up to 132 million more people may join their ranks.
Meanwhile, food waste is rampant. We’re wasting 1.3 billion tons of food every year, and 38% of our total energy consumption is related to agriculture, contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. At the other end of the spectrum, child and adult overweight and obesity are increasing at alarming paces — oftentimes, due to financial constraints.
Calorie-rich but nutrient-poor foods are often cheaper than their healthy counterparts, and on a global level, the cost of a healthy diet is five times higher than an energy-sufficient diet. You don’t need to be a certified nutritionist to know our food system is broken, but thinking of ways to fix it is a whole different problem.
According to Marta Antonelli, the head of research at Italy-based Barilla Foundation, if we truly want to address the problems in our food systems, solutions need to consider the food and health aspects together. Antonelli is a co-author of a new report that proposes a double-pyramid system to help people visualize what they should eat both for the sake of themselves, and for the sake of the planet.
The use of aids such as food pyramids or food plates is not new. However, these approaches have one major shortfall, Antonelli says: they don’t consider cultural food trends. You can’t have the same food recommendations for places like the central US, the Middle East, or central Africa — it’s just not gonna work. So Antonelli and colleagues clustered the world’s most common foods into 18 groups of items that have similar nutritional impacts. They also formed a second climate pyramid by calculating the average carbon footprint of these foods, using a European Union database.
The new tool also considers things like snacks or street food, offering daily as well as weekly perspectives. It doesn’t include drinks, but it mentions some recommendations (about drinking water, for instance) at the bottom.
The idea is to eat things that are best for you and least impactful for the climate. For instance, while it doesn’t advise people to give up on meat, the report does mention that meat consumption should be reduced:
“The Health Pyramid is consistent with scientific evidence indicating that, overall, in the adult population, diets with a higher intake of plant foods are associated with a substantially better health profile compared with diets including predominantly animal foods; therefore, they should, in general, be preferred. In particular, regular consumption of fruit, non-starchy vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods should be specifically promoted to prevent cardiovascular diseases, and, more generally, to improve health; these are, therefore, placed at the bottom of the pyramid.”
“Conversely, processed meats, associated with a high risk of cardiovascular events, should not be consumed frequently and are therefore placed in the top layer of the food pyramid. In between are foods to be consumed with intermediate frequencies.”
The tool is already trialed in some areas. In Africa (where it’s known as the African Double Pyramid), it focuses on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania. Researchers hope that the model will be picked up in communication campaigns and based on the demographics of these countries, a wider strategy could be deployed for the entire Africa.
Of course, this won’t change the food crisis and it won’t solve anything overnight. But with improved awareness, the authors say, it could get us one step closer. Being aware that we live in an interconnected world is essential — our food decisions can have strong impacts the world over.
“As a brief conclusion, with awareness and knowledge, clear and precise information, a supportive social environment, available and accessible healthy and sustainable food items, and the implementation of related policies, individuals have a great potential to achieve healthiness and environmental sustainability by choosing healthier and more sustainable foods,” the report concludes.
Alexandra is a naturalist who is firmly in love with our planet and the environment. When she's not writing about climate or animal rights, you can usually find her doing field research or reading the latest nutritional studies.