The planetary health diet is billed as being beneficial to both human health and the environment as it involves eating mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins (beans, lentils, nuts) and unsaturated plant oils. It also allows for modest amounts of meat, dairy, added sugars and starchy vegetables.
Senior lecturer in food innovation Dr Georgie Russell supervised the study, led by researcher Tara Goulding, and says it shows this diet is affordable in an Australian context.
“It’s a very positive message. We often talk about healthy diets being less affordable,” Russell says. “[But] the healthy and sustainable diet was actually cheaper.”
Russell says the next step is to look at whether it’s a feasible change for most families. She hopes that ultimately the results convince people to be more open to the idea of experimenting with more plant-based meals.
“It would require having to prepare lentils and more things from scratch … It requires more cooking skills, more knowledge and more time.”
Dietitian Susie Burrell likens the planetary health diet to the Mediterranean diet, known for being superior for health, but she says it does require more planning and preparation.
“We know it’s healthier but for busy people with a lot of pressures in their lives it’s a more labour intensive way of eating and it’s very, very different to the traditional Australian approach of meat and three veg,” says Burrell. “But one thing we know about Australian diets is they are exceptionally low in fruits and vegetables.”
Unless you have the motivation or interest to overhaul your diet, Burrell’s advice is to start small and make gradual changes.
“It’s no good taking a guy who eats a kilo of meat every second day and telling him not to have it. It has to be slow changes over time to shift the ratios and eating patterns.”
The best thing, she says, is to increase consumption of vegetables and legumes by having these foods as a heavy base for at least one meal each day.
“And watch your portions of protein. It doesn’t mean becoming vegetarian or vegan, but we do eat too much meat.”
For example, make a kilogram of mince in a pasta bolognaise last more than one family dinner by packing lots of vegetables into the sauce.
And if you’re worried about the cost of fresh produce, Burrell says it sometimes pays off to buy frozen or tinned vegetables or to shop at markets. Plus, eating less meat does save money, she says.
Russell believes that with the pandemic offering some Australians more time at home, it may be a good time to get creative in the kitchen. It’s also a hot topic: the popular new Netflix film by conservationist Sir David Attenborough makes a strong statement about reducing meat intake.
“I think consumers are more interested in what they’re eating, where it comes from and who is impacted.”
The study adds that the planetary health diet could be even cheaper by further reducing or even eliminating the meat portion, eating fresh produce seasonally, buying dry goods in bulk and using supermarket specials.
Sophie is Deputy Lifestyle Editor for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.