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Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health

Abstract

Diets link environmental and human health. Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. By 2050 these dietary trends, if unchecked, would be a major contributor to an estimated 80 per cent increase in global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from food production and to global land clearing. Moreover, these dietary shifts are greatly increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies. Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases. The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.

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Figure 1: Lifecycle GHG emissions (CO2-Ceq) for 22 different food types.
Figure 2: Dietary trends and income.
Figure 3: Diet and health.
Figure 4: Effect of diets on GHG emissions and cropland.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Burgess, A. Clark and E. Hallström for their comments, K. Thompson for assistance with data collection, editing, and creating figures, and the LTER programme of the US National Science Foundation and the University of Minnesota Foundation for support.

Author information

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Authors

Contributions

D.T. conceived this project and M.C. assembled data; both M.C. and D.T. analysed data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Tilman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

All data used in our analyses are publicly available from the original sources that we list, and are provided in the Supplementary Information.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Dietary composition.

The percentage of per capita total dietary protein (a) or calorie demand (b) that is met by each of ten food types is shown for each of five different diets: the global-average 2009 diet, the projected income-dependent diet for 2050, the Mediterranean diet, the pescetarian diet and the vegetarian diet. Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Original data sources for LCAs in Fig. 1
Extended Data Table 2 Food group composition
Extended Data Table 3 Mean food production emissions
Extended Data Table 4 Economic group country composition
Extended Data Table 5 Cohort studies and health conditions examined
Extended Data Table 6 Effects of agricultural development variables on forecast 2050 cropland use
Extended Data Table 7 Protein conversion ratios of livestock production systems

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

This file contains numerous data sets used by Tilman and Clark. Each dataset is indicated by a letter (A to H) and has a descriptive title. See Methods for more details. (XLSX 215 kb)

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Tilman, D., Clark, M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature 515, 518–522 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13959

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