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Environmentally sustainable diet linked to health benefits

Vegetables stacked on a table
Photo: Mostphotos

A large population study from Lund University in Sweden has shown that more sustainable dietary habits are linked to health benefits, such as a reduced risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. The study is published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“Our results indicate that dietary guidelines that are beneficial for both planetary health and personal health do exist”, says Anna Stubbendorff, doctoral student at Lund University and first author of the study.

The EAT-Lancet Commission report describes how the world must transform its food production and consumption if the Earth’s already fragile environment and scarce resources are to suffice for 10 billion people in 2050. The report covered six different areas: climate impact, water use, biodiversity, phosphorus and nitrogen use and acidification.

The EAT-Lancet diet has target values for daily intake of a selection of different food, and consists of a lot of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and pulses (peas, beans and lentils), and significantly less meat, sugar and saturated fat compared with current consumption.

Using theoretical calculations, the report also estimated the diet’s benefits for human health and longevity.

“We wanted to investigate scientifically how the EAT-Lancet diet could be linked to health, as it has not yet been sufficiently evaluated. The results clearly show that the diet can be linked to a lower risk of premature death,” says Anna Stubbendorff.

The researchers studied a total of 22 421 participants from the Malmö diet and cancer cohort to investigate the links between diet and health. By creating a special points system showing how similar the dietary habits of individuals are to the EAT-Lancet diet, they were able to divide the participants into five groups. The higher the adherence to the EAT-Lancet diet, the higher the points assigned according to the researchers’ model.

During an average follow-up of 20 years, the researchers investigated the association between the participants’ diet and mortality. The association was adjusted for factors including smoking, physical activity, BMI and high alcohol consumption.

Individuals with a dietary intake closest to the EAT-Lancet diet had a 25 per cent lower risk of premature death compared with individuals with lowest adherence to the EAT-Lancet diet. When the researchers investigated specific causes of death, they were able to link the EAT-Lancet diet to a 32 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 24 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer.

“Even in cases where the study participants’ dietary habits were far from the targets for the EAT-Lancet diet, we observed a clear difference in total mortality, already when participants were halfway to the target”, says Anna Stubbendorff.

In the next stage, the researchers want to study the diet with a focus on nutrition. Anna Stubbendorff hopes that the study results so far, as well as the points system model, will be able to be used by others in the future to develop more sustainable dietary guidelines.

“For many people, eating according to the EAT-Lancet diet would entail a major change, in particular for those living in the richer countries of the Western world. Research has shown that it is possible, but it will take time to change our eating habits. Knowing that there is a diet that benefits both public health and the planet should increase our motivation, though. Either way, we humans need to change what and how we eat – to save our own health and our planet”, she concludes.


Link to the article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

Development of an EAT-Lancet index and its relation to mortality in a Swedish population

Anna Stubbendorff


Anna Stubbendorff, doctoral student in the nutritional epidemiology research team at the Department of Clinical Sciences in Malmö and at the Agenda 2030 Graduate School
Lund University

anna [dot] stubbendorff [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

About the dietary index model:

The researchers developed a dietary index, a model with a points system enabling them to determine adherence to the EAT-Lancet diet and its association with mortality. The EAT-Lancet diet consists of food components with set dietary intake levels and proposed reference intervals which are considered compatible with optimal health in various populations. Based on descriptions, the researchers classified the EAT-Lancet diet’s food components into foods whose consumption was either recommended for increase or reduction. The food components whose intake is recommended for increase are vegetables, fruit, unsaturated fats, pulses, whole grains, nuts and fish. The food components for which a limited intake is recommended are beef and lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, dairy products, potatoes and added sugar.

The dietary index developed by the researchers at Lund University consists of 14 food components determined on the basis of the EAT-Lancet diet, with a possible range of 0–3 points for each component. Zero points indicates a low adherence to the target for the food component according to the EAT-Lancet diet, and three points indicate high adherence. The total possible points range is 0–42 points, where zero points means non-adherence and 42 points is perfect adherence. The researchers then evaluated the study participants’ dietary intake based on reported amounts in grams per day in raw weight, which is in line with how dietary intake levels are expressed in the EAT-Lancet diet.