The Planetary Health Diet Is the More Sustainable Way to Plan Your Meals

Lower the ecological impact of your food consumption—without being overly restrictive—with the help of the Planetary Health Diet.

A little over a decade ago, the U.S. government’s classic food pyramid was replaced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s MyPlate, showing what a typical healthy, balanced meal should look like. There are lots of ways this illustration can be interpreted, and unfortunately, some aren’t the healthiest for the planet. Enter the Planetary Health Diet. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission created the world’s first ever plate designed to visualize a healthy diet for both humans and the planet.

Here, we’ll take a look at where the MyPlate may steer us wrong in making environmentally friendly food choices and how the Planetary Health Diet remedies these. 

Basket full of organic vegetables
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The Impact of MyPlate

If you’re not familiar with MyPlate, it’s essentially what comprises a healthy meal or snack, according the USDA. (It’s also an updated version of the infamous food pyramid.) MyPlate models a meal or snack in which:

  • Half of the plate is dedicated to produce in the form of fruit and veggies
  • Approximately a quarter of the plate is comprised of grains
  • Another quarter of the plate is made up of protein
  • There is a side of dairy

Through following this way of eating, Americans should be getting a balanced array of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) from their diet.

However, there is a glaring lack of detail with this plate, leaving it open for much interpretation. This oversight can have the most damaging environmental impacts when looking at the protein and dairy recommendations. Further evidence of this can be found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a report put out by the USDA every five years with additional information on healthy eating recommendations that elaborates on MyPlate. The Dietary Guidelines cite that, for an individual eating 2,000 calories per day, that person should be consuming 34 total servings of animal-based protein (meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood) weekly, plus three servings of dairy per day.

This is a problem from an environmental perspective for a variety of reasons. Our global food system contributes anywhere between 21 and 37 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Livestock production alone contributes at least 14.5 percent of GHG emissions across the planet. Plus, dairy production contributes up to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions associated with the global food system.

By giving almost no specific guidance on which protein choices are best for our health (or the environment’s) on MyPlate itself—combined with the fine print recommendations of very high animal protein and dairy intake—the USDA’s dietary advice doesn’t serve Americans when it comes to environmental eating. A study in Global Environmental Change actually quantified the climate impacts of different countries’ national nutrition recommendations, and the U.S. guidelines not only had one of the highest carbon footprints, but would also prevent the U.S. from meeting the 2°C budget set at the Paris Agreement.

A New Approach: The Planetary Health Diet

If you search for them, there are a few different schools of thought when it comes to sustainability-focused diets or philosophies for eating. But one that really stands out, and has a great plate illustration to boot, is the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health’s Planetary Health Diet. The Planetary Health Diet proposes a flexitarian diet that doesn’t call for the elimination of any food groups. The Commission believes that global adoption of this type of diet could help limit greenhouse gas emissions to within 1.5°C of warming by 2050. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would curb the most significant consequences of climate change, according to NASA.

The Planetary Health Diet’s plate breakdown is a little more complex than MyPlate’s. In it:

  • Half the plate is composed of fruits and vegetables
  • Approximately one-fifth is made up of whole grains and starchy vegetables
  • Another one-fifth of the plate is allotted toward protein choices between animal (including dairy) and plant sources, with plants being the large majority
  • The remainder of the plate is dedicated to plant-based oils and added sugars

The EAT-Lancet Commission justifies its recommendations by considering the public health and environmental impact of every food represented. Animal-based proteins and dairy are included despite the negative environmental impacts, and added sugar is included despite the negative health impacts to increase approachability and chances of adoption, as calling for complete elimination of any food can deter individuals from making a lifestyle change. 

Ways to Integrate Environmental Food Choices into Your Life

So you have a lot of information about eating more sustainably, but how can you best use it? Even though the Planetary Health Diet is more approachable than veganism for many people, its guidelines are still a bit confusing and intimidating. (Just try to fill one-tenth of your dinner plate with starchy vegetables on your own—not easy.)

Good news: The bottom line here is moderation, with more being taken around some foods (like animal-based products) over others. Try participating in Meatless Monday, investing in regeneratively raised animal products (which have a much lower impact than their conventionally raised counterparts), testing out alternative meats, or give plant-based whole food protein choices like tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds a try. Similarly, many of the dairy-free milk alternatives found on the market nowadays have a very similar nutrition profile to milk from cows, and subbing those out for regular dairy occasionally can be a great change.

While there are many more facets to sustainable food choices, with every new piece of information we gather, we can make more informed food decisions. This can even mean following a format like the MyPlate but with a keener eye toward protein and dairy choices. Through making small changes in your daily routine and supporting food producers who are doing right by the environment, you can help to lower the carbon footprint of your diet while helping to push the food system towards more sustainable practices.

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  1. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.” United States Department of Agriculture.

  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO). “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World/ Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets.” FAO.

  3. Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. “Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

  4. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector: A Life Cycle Assessment.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Animal Production and Health Division.

  5. Hannah Ritchie, David S. Reay, Peter Higgins. “The impact of global dietary guidelines on climate change.” Global Environmental Change, Volume 49, Pages 46-55.

  6. Buis, Alan. “A Degree of Concern: Why Global Temperatures Matter.” NASA’s Global Climate Change Website.

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