Image: The EAT-Lancet Commission

The controversial EAT-Lancet report on global food consumption sustainability was published recently to a huge fanfare.

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems — to give it its full title — was penned by a group of 37 scientists headed by Dr Walter Willett, of Harvard.

The Lancet is a highly prestigious old journal but in many areas highly politicised. It is unclear if the paper was peer reviewed.

Before the science is considered, it is important to establish who in involved in writing this paper and if there are any conflicts of interest.

What is the EAT Foundation which teamed up with the Lancet? It was founded by Norwegian multi-millionaire vegan and animal rights activist Gunhild Stordalen. It has close ties to the London based Wellcome Trust also.

Its name has recently been associated with FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health). This in turn is associated with Kelloggs, Unilever, Pepsico and Barilla, organisations which produce vegetarian or vegan type foods.

Lead author Prof. Willett has been promoting vegetarianism since the 1990s and has published three public interest books promoting this. He is reported as having produced over 200 papers showing an association between red meat/animal fats and poor health, while claiming that a diet of grains, fruit and vegetables are better.

It is possible that he is correct but the nutritional epidemiology studies that he and others rely upon have been roundly criticised.

According to Edward Archer writing in Frontiers in Nutrition (November 2018) the problem with this type of research is that “In lieu of measuring actual dietary intake, epidemiologists collected millions of unverified verbal and textual reports of memories of perceptions of dietary intake… transformed (i.e., pseudo-quantified) into proxy-estimates of nutrient and caloric consumption.”

In other words, complex statistical analyses were used to create usable data. The causation of health problems by diet can only be demonstrated by clinical trials and there are none, according to critics.

The focus is on both health and sustainability and the key message of EAT-Lancet is that we need to reduce red meat for better health and the good of the planet, aiming to achieve this by 2050. They recommend that we triple our consumption of beans and quadruple nuts and seeds while reducing our intake of red meat by 90 percent. It recommends a meat tax.

In terms of calories the writers recommend that around 800 calories each day should come from rice, wheat, corn etc, 350 from vegetable oils, 15 should come from pork or beef, (a small thin slice), 19 from eggs (a poached egg contains about 70) and 40 calories from fish (100g contains 82 calories).

This is not just a radical departure for the world but, if followed by a compliant public, would result in most of the world becoming vegan or almost so.

Focussing on the nutritional aspects of the recommendations, Dr Georgia Ede, in Psychology Today (just google it for a detailed analysis), comments that the EAT view of protein being essential but cancerous is contradictory when the authors concede that amino acids and “animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources.”

The EAT authors go on to say that high quality protein is especially important for certain groups such as babies, children and older people losing muscle bulk.

The authors of EAT also suggest that good amino acids may cause cancer, but when Ede reviewed the paper on which it was based, proteins, meat and amino acids are not mentioned even once, making this a hypothesis rather than a fact.

The authors recommend plant alternatives to omega-3 oils, contained in fish, but say it’s unclear about how much of the substitute (called ALA) plants can provide. They also concede that strict vegan diets require vitamin and mineral supplements for certain groups, and especially pregnant mothers and adolescent girls.

Even groups supportive of sustainable food such as the Sustainable Food Trust criticise the recommendations of the document for showing a lack of agricultural understanding.

In its response SFT points out that the recommendations depend too heavily on plant sources and poultry rather than red meat, and unsaturated fats compared with saturated fats. It says these are fundamentally flawed. “Humans have evolved as red meat eaters and, providing this is part of a balanced diet, beef and lamb provide superior types of protein and fat to plant sources”.

This killjoy diet will destroy any zest for life that we have and thrust us into being the first hibernating humans since the appearance of home sapiens on this earth. We will forsake our reality of kale, quinoa, chia seeds and beetroot juice and escape into a dream world of red wine, ice cream, Irish stew and runny camembert.

In order to sell the idea, if that is possible with such overheated food radicalism, EAT ought to have taken account of the competition that exists, at a human level, between taste and nutrition, between cost and environmental protection, between health and nutrition and so on.

It has done a disservice to the public by conflating science with ideology in this puritanical document.

Consider, finally, the unalloyed joy of those with eating disorders who will gleefully shout from their weighing scales “I told you my meatless, eggless, high grain, low carb diet was healthy”. This would be better termed The Anorectic Charter.

Patricia Casey is Consultant Psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at UCD. This article is the original text of a column published in The Independent (Ireland) and is published here with permission.