Food and the Future Environment

The “Happy Medium” in Nutrition and Diets


The “Happy Medium” in Nutrition and Diets

By now you may be forming the correct impression that a better diet and nutrition around the world is a matter of finding a “happy medium” for consumers between food shortage on the one hand, and excessive consumption of unhealthy foods on the other hand. That is, consumers in poorer sectors and societies eat too little fruits, vegetables, high-quality fats and proteins and in the worst case even insufficient calories. Meanwhile, wealthier consumers and even some of the urban poor eat excessive quantities of low-quality calories and fats in relation to relatively sedentary lifestyles. The results are serious chronic malnutrition (undernutrition and nutrient deficiencies, specifically) at one end of the diet spectrum and chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes at the overconsumption end of the same spectrum. In addition, a high-meat diet and millions of acres in crops to feed beef cattle and pigs creates a water-consuming and polluting food sector of the economy to support these diets, as seen in previous modules. Therefore, increasingly there has been a movement to unite concerns about the environmental impacts of food with the problematic diet and nutrition outcomes from modern high meat and processed food diets. The reading below from food columnist Michael Pollan addresses these principles for a happy medium in diets.

Additional Reading

Michael Pollan, Unhappy Meals New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2007. This reading starts with Pollan's by now somewhat famous recipe for a healthy diet: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." and then expands on this principle.

One example of a "happy medium": the demitarian diet concept

In order to address the need for this "happy medium", a number of scientists and activists globally have enunciated the interesting principle of the demitarian diet1, in which consumers commit to reducing their consumption of meat products, short of adopting vegan and vegetarian diets. The prefix demi- comes from French for “half” and reflects the principle that consumers in high-income societies and sectors need to at least halve their consumption of meats, to produce better health and environmental impacts, especially the impacts on nitrogen pollution and greenhouse gases from fossil fuels in agriculture (more on this in the following modules). The demitarian diet and its proponents are primarily focused on the environmental sustainability of first-world diets. Nevertheless, we can extend this concept to the third world to say that populations eating diets of poverty will receive benefit from increasing their intake of legumes, fish, meat, vegetables, and other high-quality nutrient sources. Populations at risk from undernutrition may see dramatic positive effects from even slight increases in consumption of these high-quality foods that are often lacking in circumstances of poverty. This is because even small quantities of meat, eggs, and other animal products along with legumes, fruits, and nuts, can be very high-density sources of protein, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin A, and high-quality fats. Because of this nutrient-density, animal protein (e.g. poultry, fish, eggs) as well as legume crops (e.g. bean, pigeon pea), vegetables (e.g. sweet potato, collards, carrots), and fruits (e.g. papaya, mango, avocado) therefore feature prominently in nutrition interventions of government and other organizations.

1 The Barsac Declaration highlights the demitarian diet concept.