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Planetary Health: Eat yourself healthy while saving the planet!

1 June 2023
Groundbreaking research reveals the key to both our own health and that of the planet. The first Planetary Health congress in July will explore the role of nutrition, focusing on the transition to a more plant-based diet and the impact of gut microbiota - or your gut health.VU Amsterdam scientists Remco Kort, professor in Microbiology and co-organiser of the congress and Jaap Seidell, professor in Humane Nutrition are contributing on behalf of the university. The goal is to exchange ideas and knowledge with peers which can be practiced directly to bring about a societal transition towards a sustainable, healthy and safe future.

Humanity is at a crucial point to make real change in the way we exhaust the planets resources. An opportunity for instance lies in changing our eating habits and overarching by fundamental reform of our food system. Currently that accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally and our population is expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050. That means huge demand for food and extra pressure on natural systems. Fortunately, research by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which involves leading nutrition and health scientists, has shown that the Planetary Health diet can offer the solution.

‘Win-win diet’

VU Amsterdam scientist Jaap Seidell's keynote is about this largely plant-based health diet, also known as the 'win-win diet'. The diet requires halving consumption of red meat and sugar worldwide, while doubling intake of vegetables, fruit, legumes and nuts. Europeans meet the guidelines by eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds. The 'win-win diet' embodies a double win. On the one hand, it contributes to reducing the depletion of natural resources on a global scale. On the other hand, it reduces the disease burden (including obesity and cardiovascular disease) associated with excessive intake of unhealthy foods and insufficient intake of micronutrients or food groups such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. "Getting fat is a normal response to this abnormal environment," said Jaap Seidell, referring to our current lifestyle.

Government vs. individuals

If indeed we are going to "drastically" change our diet, where does the responsibility lie, with the government or individuals, and how do we deal with, for example, marketing tricks that tempt consumers to buy unhealthy food or on the other hand mislead them by "greenwashing". Greenwashing is the labelling of products as environmentally friendly, for which there is no proof at all whether that claim is justified. A European Commission study in 2020 shows that 53.3 per cent of the environmental claims investigated in the EU were found to be unclear, misleading or unfounded, and 40 per cent not substantiated. Such cases do put consumers in a quandary. And then there is the concept of social justice. Can you expect people already struggling to earn a living to make an individual contribution to solve the climate issue?

Get started with your own health

That answer is open to different perspectives. What might contribute is encouraging people to work on their own health. VU Amsterdam microbiologist Remco Kort investigates in the ‘GEEF om je buik’ Citizen science study which dietary recommendations improve the diversity of the gut microbiota, simply put gut health. During the Planetary Health Congress, the Food & Microbes workshop will take place, which addresses the link between diet, microbiota and overall health.

Find out more about Planetary Health and the congress here.