3:18pm 22/04/2021
A sustainable diet to save our Earth

By Professor Dr Moy Foong Ming

Earth Day is an annual event on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

The theme for this year is "Restore our Earth" with five pillars: The Canopy Project, Food and Environment, Climate Literacy, The Global Earth Challenge, and The Great Global Clean Up.

It is hoped that the natural processes, green technologies and innovative thinking that incorporate any of these five pillars can restore the Earth's ecosystem.

We can celebrate Earth Day by planting trees, turning off lights, picking up rubbish beside the roads, or practice sustainable living.

One of the options on sustainable living lies in the food we eat.

Global access to food is not equally distributed. Half the global population is either underfed or overfed. Approximately one billion people are underweight with another billion suffering from 'hidden hunger' (nutritional deprivation), while 1.5 to 2 billion people are overweight or obese. In addition, around 33% of the food that's grown is wasted globally.

So, what can be done to overcome the unequal distribution of food?

Agricultural output can be improved by using better seeds, better cultivation techniques, bring degraded lands back into production, tackle issues such as post-harvest losses and waste by consumers and industry; improve food distribution and consumption, smallholder productivity and gender equality and change in food consumption patterns.

On the other hand, some of us tend to overeat food (especially meat) that has a highly detrimental impact on our health and environment.

Besides being high in meat consumption, some of our diets may be high in fat, sugar and salt with highly processed food. This kind of diet not only contribute high greenhouse gas emission but also increase prevalence in obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

We should make changes to what we eat by adopting a healthy and sustainable diet to help achieve a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from our food supply chain, which is also beneficial for our health.

Globally, the food system accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting a typical Western diet to a more sustainable diet may reduce 70% to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and land use, with 50% reduction in water use.

According to the latest commissioned report by EAT and Lancet, diets with an appropriate caloric intake and consist of a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats; and small amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars, are the solutions for the human health and environmental sustainability goals.

Diets with higher quality have been connected with lower environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas, water use and land use.

Malaysia has gone through rapid industrialization and economic growth in the past decades. The Malaysian diet has changed to be higher in total calorie, fat and sodium as well as lower fiber intake, and coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, the prevalence of obesity and NCDs has increased markedly.

In 2019, the prevalence of overweight or obesity among adult population was 50.1%, with the prevalence of diabetes being 18.3% and hypertension 30.0%.

Therefore, a sustainable diet should be practiced by all of us for health promotion and restoring the Earth's ecosystem.

The key principles of a sustainable diet are as follows:

1. Eat a varied balanced diet to maintain a healthy body weight;

2. Eat more plant-based foods, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day;

3. Value your food. Ask about where it comes from and how it is produced. Don't waste food;

4. Choose fish sourced from sustainable stocks, taking seasonality and capture methods into consideration;

5. Moderate your meat consumption and enjoy more peas, beans and pulses, tofu, nuts and other plant sources of protein;

6. Include milk and dairy products in your diet and/or seek out plant-based alternatives, including those fortified with additional vitamins and minerals;

7. Drink plain water; and

8. Eat fewer foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

(Professor Dr Moy Foong Ming, Department of Social & Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.)



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