A new University of Birmingham study has revealed that most secondary school students in the UK are not eating a healthy and sustainable planetary health diet.
The EAT-Lancet Commission pioneered dietary changes in 2019 that looked to enhance human and planetary health, ensuring that future food systems are sustainable and can provide adequate nutrition for the estimated population of 10 billion people in 2050.
From these criteria, the commission devised the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet. However, new research from the University of Birmingham has identified that many adolescents in the West Midlands area of the UK are currently not consuming this type of diet, suggesting that interventions are needed to increase the adoption of healthy and sustainable food choices.
What is the planetary health diet?
The EAT-Lancet planetary health diet outlines daily intakes of certain foods and predominantly includes whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and pulses (peas, beans and lentils). Additionally, the diet looks to significantly limit the consumption of meat, sugar, and saturated fat.
Dr Ankita Gupta, who led the study at the University of Birmingham, said: “Following the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet means eating plant-based foods on most days with small amounts of meat and fish. Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, frozen dinners and reconstituted meats and sugars are mostly avoided.”
Following a planetary health diet has a range of potential benefits, such as reducing deaths and illnesses from cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. The diet also mitigates a person’s ecological footprint and greenhouse gas production.
Analysing dietary choices
To analyse the food choices of UK adolescents, the researchers utilised data from the Birmingham Food provision, cUlture and Environment in secondary schooLs (FUEL) study, which examined the National Food Standards and related national policy in secondary schools in the West Midlands. The team then compared these with the planetary health diet.
The FUEL study comprised cross-sectional data from 942 pupils aged between 11 and 15 years, who all completed two questionnaires that were repeated between two and four weeks later. The first questionnaire collected demographic data, such as ethnicity, age, sex, and postcode, and the other documented the food and drinks they consumed in the last 24 hours. Subsequently, the researchers calculated food intake for each food group in the planetary health diet and identified how many pupils were meeting each dietary recommendation.
The results illuminated that the average consumption of free sugar (which includes table sugar, sugar added to food and drinks, and found naturally in fruit juices, syrups, and honey), red meat, potatoes, chicken and poultry all exceeded the recommended daily amount in the planetary health diet.
Moreover, 73% of pupils ate more than the recommended maximum daily intake of 31G of free sugar, and 31% exceeded the maximum recommended 58g of chicken and processed poultry and 100g of potatoes. Additionally, fruit, vegetables, dairy, wholegrains, legumes, and fish fell short of the recommended daily intake, with 70% not eating the recommended 100g of fruit per day and 90% not eating the recommended 200g of vegetables.
Dr Gupta concluded: “Governments and dietary guidelines need to acknowledge that a third of adolescents in the UK are overweight or obese, and consider interventions that focus on transforming food systems, changing food policy and supporting diets that benefit both young people’s health and the planet.
“For many young people living in the UK and other western countries, eating according to the planetary health diet will entail a major change, and it will take time to change our eating habits. Schools are where children spend most of their time, making this a crucial setting for programmes, strategies, and policies that alter the food environment by shaping the choices available and the options they choose. We tend to stick to the dietary habits we develop as children.”