Facing the intersection of chronic disease and climate change, physicians must prioritize planetary health for the sake of their patients, researchers say.
In a recent viewpoint published in the JAMA Network, researchers out of New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, and New York University say the role of physicians now needs to include a focus on the health benefits of dietary changes.
While meat and milk production has more than tripled and doubled, respectively, over the past half-century, this growth in animal agriculture has led to serious environmental damage, the researchers say. From ecosystem destruction to increased greenhouse gas emissions, the impact is profound and wide-reaching.
“Humanity’s window for climate action is closing rapidly,” the researchers write. “In 2016, the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, set a goal of limiting the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 °C (preferably 1.5 °C) of preindustrial levels. Furthermore, the United Nations Climate Change Conference recognized climate change as a global emergency, and the American Medical Association (AMA) announced climate change a public health crisis.”
The viewpoint, which was published earlier this month, came just ahead of the World Meteorological Organization’s warning that the planet will likely exceed the 1.5°C threshold by 2027.
The rapidly evolving role of physicians
In this context, the researchers say the role of physicians is rapidly evolving beyond a narrow focus on individual patient health. National surveys reveal that fewer than five percent of the U.S. population meets dietary fiber recommendations — a gap largely attributed to inadequate consumption of plant-based foods.
The researchers point to the EAT-Lancet Commission, which says that providing dietary guidance may be a worthy consideration for physicians as the health of the planet is tied to the health of their patients. The Commission says increasing consumption of plant-based foods would augment personal health while simultaneously lessening worldwide food scarcity, pollution, and climate change, improving planetary health as an indirect consequence.
According to the Commission’s report, halving global red meat consumption and doubling the intake of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes by 2050 would result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, even if the world could completely eliminate fossil fuel emissions, the emissions from the global food system alone would exceed the Paris Agreement targets.
Plant-based diets: critical for human health and the planet
This emphasis on plant-based diets isn’t only about environmental stewardship. A number of studies have associated plant-based diets with reduced incidence of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and some forms of cancer. Recent data also suggest that plant-based diets may mitigate the risk and severity of covid-19.
Shifting to a more sustainable diet also has economic implications, the viewpoint notes. Transitioning to more plant-based diets that align with standard dietary guidelines could reduce global mortality by six percent to ten percent and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent to 70 percent in 2050. The economic benefits of such dietary improvements could be as high as 13 percent of the global gross domestic product in 2050.
Physicians have an essential role to play in advocating for this change, the researchers say. They are uniquely positioned to guide patients and the broader public toward healthier, more sustainable diets.
“Ultimately, the greatest benefit lies in incremental changes toward increasing unprocessed plant-based food consumption for personal health reasons with the simultaneous benefits to planetary health,” the researchers write. “The medical community cannot miss the forest for the trees and owes this to patients, future generations, and the planet to counsel, educate, and empower. Physicians can play an important role as advocates for such change.”