Molly Chanzis is a Registered Dietitian in New York City. She is passionate about making nutrition approachable, sustainable, and accessible to all. The Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative (YINI) asked her to write this blog post summarizing research presented at the YINI Summit about balancing planetary and human health and the crucial role of biodiversity. Follow Molly on Instagram
On June 10, 2021, the Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative (YINI) hosted an online symposium focusing on the role of biodiversity in balancing planetary and human health. Three fantastic speakers discussed how the health of humans is intertwined with the health and biodiversity of our planet, all down to the very soil our food grows in. Here I’ll break down the key points of each talk.
One Earth: Increasing Evidence of the interconnection between planet, people, and health
Presented by Fabrice DeClerck
Humanity has become the biggest force on the planet, however if we want to ensure long term sustainability, it’s important that we optimize our relationship with the earth. Because of how much the population on earth has grown, it has become a challenge to provide enough food for everyone. Healthy diets should include mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant proteins, and unsaturated plant oils, plus smaller amounts of animal protein, dairy, starchy vegetables, and added sugars (as desired). But billions of people are struggling to access all of these different foods.
The planet also has its limits to how much food it can sustainably produce, and there are consequences to pushing past these limits. Food production currently creates 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions. Our current food production system has also disrupted ecosystems- for example turning forests into cropland. And when we change ecosystems, we are changing the proportions, diversity, and density of the species within these systems, which impacts how these systems function.
Despite more land being dedicated to food production, our plates are less diverse than ever, and there is less diversity of crops in the fields being grown. This is a problem because for optimal health, we actually need more diversity (i.e. a wider variety of foods) in our diets. When we think of healthy eating, we too often think of what foods NOT to eat, however this study* showed that 7 of the top dietary risk factors are under-consumption of plant foods. This can likely be related to over-consuming protein, which displaces room in our diets for whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, healthy fats, and fiber. Low diversity diets also have a major impact on our gut microbiome.
This begs the question of what effect a healthier diet (i.e. more plant foods) would have on the environment. The speaker references a study from 2014 which showed that shifting towards healthier diets such as vegetarian, pescatarian or Mediterranean would decrease carbon emissions. Embracing a “probiotic” approach where we can work WITH diversity instead of against it can benefit both human health and the planet. What we put into our bodies is the key means to how we cultivate a gut microbiome.
Gut microbiome diversity: Link between food, gut microbiota and health
Presented by Joel Dore
We are in the midst of a chronic disease epidemic in which global health and life expectancy are at risk. Research has shown that having a low gene count in the gut microbiota is associated with a variety of metabolic problems.
So how does food come into play? Consuming a large diversity in plant fibers (i.e. a high fiber diet) may promote diversification of gut bacteria, and therefore increase gene count in the gut microbiome! This is more evidence towards eating a wide variety of plant foods every day. The speaker referred to a study which showed that replacing refined bread with a special enriched, higher fiber bread led to a reduction in pro-inflammatory bacterium and increased anti-inflammatory bacterium. It also improved cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity.
“Consuming a large diversity in plant fibers (i.e. a high fiber diet) may promote diversification of gut bacteria, and therefore increase gene count in the gut microbiome! This is more evidence towards eating a wide variety of plant foods every day – Joel Doré, Balancing human and planetary health: the crucial role of biodiversity – June 2021
The importance of microbiome diversity: The link between soil microbiome, plant, food and health
Presented by Heribert Hirt
Both presentations so far concluded that eating more plant foods has a multitude of benefits, so next we can discuss where plant foods come from- soil! As Heribert Hirt said in his presentation, “Healthy soil makes happy foods makes happy humans”. The soil is full of microbes. Every plant and food that you buy has its own microbiome. Every seed inherits its microbiome from the motherplant, similar to how humans can inherit from their parents. The more diverse and plentiful the soil, the more nutritious the food that grows in it becomes.
There are some aspects of our microbiome that we can change, and others that are out of our control. Diet and exercise are considered modifiable factors- the diet being a major one. If we grow the same things over and over, the soil microbiome becomes less diverse- just like how if we eat the same few things over and over, our gut microbiome becomes less diverse. Chemicals and pollutants also affect soil microbiome and ultimately affect human microbiome. The most pesticide treated foods, may provide less potentially good bacteria into your system. This is all a systemic issue. Poor soil microbiome > fragile plant microbiome > less nutritious food supply > less healthy humans. If we can start fixing this issue at the soil level, we can start to improve the quality of our food.
What all the presenters concluded is that what we eat has a major role on our health, starting with our gut microbiome. Eating a plant-forward diet can help to improve our gut microbiome. It’s also important that how we grow food is supportive of human and planetary health as well. The food choices individuals make are important, however we must also consider that some may not have access to nutritious, diverse, or organic foods. This requires changes on a global level as food systems shift to be more plant forward and less animal protein driven, as well as ensuring that everyone can access these foods. This doesn’t mean that you need to cut animal protein altogether- including things such as dairy (like probiotic-rich yogurt), seafood, and moderate amounts of eggs and meat can certainly have a place in a healthy diet.
Joël Doré mentioned that we should try to eat 25 different plants each week. He prefers this vs the recommendation of 5 fruits and vegetables a day, as this may encourage more diversity in our diets since it includes at least 25 different plants. Instead of “an apple a day” to keep the doctor away, let’s try for “25 plants per week”. It’ll keep the doctor away and give a hand to planetary and human health!