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Ideal diet for humans isn’t affordable for 1.58 billion people, says Lancet study

Study says the EAT-Lancet diet would cost 64 per cent more than the lowest-cost combination of foods in low-income nations.

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New Delhi: The ideal diet for the optimal health of humans and the planet, which was recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission earlier this year, has been found to be unaffordable for nearly 1.58 billion people across the world, including those in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The revelation, published in the The Lancet Global Health, Friday says this perfect diet would cost 64 per cent more than the lowest-cost combination of foods — which provides a balanced mix of 20 essential nutrients — in low-income nations.

The EAT-Lancet diet, designed to minimise environmental degradation, includes doubling the consumption of fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes, and cutting down on meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.

This benchmark diet suggests higher quantities of animal source foods, fruits and vegetables than the minimum required for nutrient adequacy, and in more portions than what is consumed in low-income nations.

What the EAT-Lancet diet failed to look at, however, are the costs of such a diet in various parts of the world. In the new study, researchers from the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Tufts University sought to evaluate the affordability of this diet across different nations.

“When formulating this pioneering benchmark diet – addressing individual health outcomes as well as the health of the planet – the Commission deliberately did not take its cost into account,” said William Masters, an economist at the Tufts University and one of the authors of the study.

The researchers had used prices for 744 food items in 159 countries, from which they identified the lowest-cost combination of items in each country to meet the EAT-Lancet criteria.

Also read: India among top 6 countries with the largest childhood cancer burden: Lancet study

Not suitable for low-income countries 

Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health had published recommendations for a diet that would adequately feed the growing population while also protect the planet.

The Commission had suggested that huge reduction in meat consumption and an increased consumption of pulses could ensure that our future food systems will suitably feed the estimated population of 10 billion people in 2050.

Kalle Hirvonen, lead author of the new study, said, “We found that the global median of the proposed diet would cost $2.84 per day. In low-income countries, that amounts to 89.1 per cent of a household’s daily per capita income, which is more than people can actually spend on food.”

Hirvonen, a development economist at the IFPRI in Ethiopia, further said, “In high-income countries, we found that the EAT-Lancet reference diet would cost 6.1 per cent of per-capita income, which is often less than what people now spend on food.”

‘Cost of food preparation, non-food necessities’

In Africa south of the Sahara, nearly 57 per cent of people earn less than the local cost of the EAT-Lancet diet. In South Asia, it is 38.4 per cent, Middle East and North Africa 19.4 per cent, East Asia and Pacific 15 percent, Latin America and Caribbean 11.6 per cent, Europe and Central Asia 1.7 per cent, and North America 1.2 per cent.

Fruits, vegetables and animal source foods are often the most expensive components of a healthy diet, as suggested by the EAT-Lancet, said researchers.

“Although 1.58 billion is a lot of people, it is actually a conservative lower limit on the total number who cannot afford the diet recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission. The cost of food preparation and of non-food necessities ensure that an even larger number of people cannot afford that kind of healthy diet,” said Masters.

Lead author Hirvonen also said, “Even if many poor consumers were to aspire to consume healthier and more environmentally sustainable foods, income and price constraints frequently render this diet unaffordable. Increased earnings and safety-net transfers, as well as systemic changes to lower food prices, are needed to bring healthy and sustainable diets within reach of the world’s poor.”

There are, however, limitations to the new study. It did not take into account additional costs and barriers to food use imposed by time constraints, tastes and preferences. The study also used 2011 prices and nationally-aggregated data. So, the next steps will include research on variation within countries as well as over time.

Also read: On quality & accessibility of healthcare, India ranks 145th out of 195 countries


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