The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health brings together more than 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach a scientific consensus that defines a healthy and sustainable diet.
The Commission addresses the need to feed a growing global population a healthy diet while also defining sustainable food systems that will minimize damage to our planet.
It describes a universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar and refined grains) that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
For dairy, the recommendation in the report is 250g daily of ‘Whole milk or derivative equivalents (e.g., cheese).’
The report’s authors state, “In a review, the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that for people older than 2 years, a balanced vegetarian diet can be a healthy eating pattern.
“In the largest prospective study of vegetarian diets, people following vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or semi-vegetarian diets had 12% lower overall mortality risk than did omnivores.”
On dairy, the report notes high intake of dairy products, at least three servings per day, has been widely promoted in western counties for bone health and fracture prevention, primarily because of their high calcium content.
However, it continues, the optimum calcium intake remains uncertain. Recommendations in the US of 1,200 mg/day are derived from balance studies lasting 3 weeks or less, which probably reflect transient movements of calcium in and out of bone rather than long-term requirements.
A WHO review, noting that regions with low intake of dairy foods and calcium have lower fracture rates than regions with high dairy consumption, concluded 500 mg/day is adequate and lower intakes might be adequate in areas with low fracture rates. The UK has concluded that 700 mg/day is an adequate intake, according to the report.
These lower amounts for adequate intake have major implications for dietary recommendations because many foods contain modest amounts of calcium, and eating a wide variety of diets with no dairy foods will include 300-400 mg of calcium, the report says.
The study says data on dairy consumption during childhood and adolescence and long-term health outcomes are scarce, but high intake has been promoted because of skeletal growth. However, the report points to studies that high consumption of milk in adolescent girls was not associated with reduced risk of hip fracture later in life, and in adolescent boys, high milk consumption was associated with increased risk of fractures.
Also, it notes, prospective studies do not show a significant increase or decrease in risk of overall mortality or cardiovascular disease with increasing consumption of dairy foods, although overall and cardiovascular mortality is likely to decrease if dairy foods are replaced with nuts and other plant sources of protein.
The report also notes that while low-fat dairy foods might be preferable to high-fat dairy foods for health, nearly all the fat in milk that is produced remains in the human food supply, often as butter or cream. Thus, low-fat dairy products will have little overall effect on population health because fat is consumed in other forms.
It argues that consumption of unsaturated plant oils conveys lower risks of cardiovascular disease than does dairy fat, therefore optimal intake will usually be at the lower end of this range, and the authors have used 250 g/day for the reference diet.
However, it’s not just in the diet section that dairy is mentioned. On sustainable production, the authors state that, “Many studies have assessed environmental effects of various diets, with most finding decreasing effects with increased replacement of animal source foods with plant-based foods. Vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and land use, and vegetarian diets with the greatest reductions in water use.”
The report also adds that “Staying within the boundary for climate change can be achieved by consuming plant-based diets.”
On dairy, it states that, “Increasing milk consumption from 250 g/day in the reference diet to 500 g/day (a level less than dietary guidelines in the USA) increased greenhouse-gas emissions and total environmental effects.”
Dairy UK response
In the UK, Dairy UK chief executive Dr Judith Bryans called the report a ‘welcome contribution to the debate on sustainable diets.’
Bryans said, “The suggested intake level recommended is much lower than dietary guidelines worldwide. Dairy products are an incredibly valuable source of nutrients, containing calcium, iodine, B vitamins and protein and have an important role to play in fighting malnutrition.”
She continued, “At a global level, dairy plays a key role in delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, helping to fight hunger and poverty, providing livelihoods to millions of people and supporting female empowerment. Dairy farmers are stewards of much of the world’s land and both farmers and processors can play a key role in protecting biodiversity.”
She concluded that the UK dairy industry has made great strides in improving its environmental impact through the UK Dairy Roadmap, achieving a 24% reduction in the emissions associated with milk between 1990 and 2015.
“Our progress and innovation has proved an inspiration to dairy industries across the globe, who are seeking to replicate our success and improve their environmental impact.”