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The Western pattern diet and World Hunger

The Western-pattern diet is a typical diet in Western nations: high in westerndietprotein and fat, high in animal-source foods, high in refined sugar and refined grains, and low in fiber. If you live the U.S., you have probably seen many ads for foods that are low in fat, or low in refined sugar, or low in calories, or high in fiber, or some combination of the aforementioned. There is already an acknowledgement in Western society that the Western diet is unhealthy and needs to change. We know that too much meat, eggs, cheese, and refined sugar is bad for our health. We know that we should eat more fiber, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat low-sugar foods.

But the issue here is the effect of the Western diet on world hunger. Despite its name, this pattern of dietary choices has been observed in the top quintile (top 20%) of income-earners in every region of the world. The 2012 FAO Hunger Report shows that, as income rises — even where hunger is prevalent (Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa) — dietary intake of animal-source foods increases substantially, and the intake of grains and cereals decreases. So the Western pattern diet is essentially an elevated-income diet or an affluent-pattern diet.

The increase in the intake of animal-source foods is a problem because more land is used, per kilocalorie, to produce foods from animals than from plants. This disparity is especially pronounced when the livestock are fed high quality grain (usually maize) and soy. As we have already discussed, almost all the carbs produced by those crops are lost, because animal-source foods have few carbs. The dietary fat grown in those crops becomes animal fat, which is less healthy. And then much of that fat is not consumed: the fat is trimmed away from the meat, and the dairy products often have reduced fat. Thus, two macronutrients are produced by agriculture (carbs and fat), and then mostly lost before they reach human consumption. Only the protein is improved (in quality and digestibility) when vegetable sources of protein are fed to livestock, and the livestock is used for food. But the amount of animal protein that reaches human consumption is much less than the amount of vegetable protein fed to the livestock.

The result is that more land is needed to produce the same amount of kilocalories in animal-source foods as compared to plant-source foods.

In every nation, as incomes rise, more animal-source foods are eaten, implying that more land is needed to feed the same number of persons. All other things being equal, the effect would be less food and greater hunger. The trend in every nation toward the Western pattern diet, for those who can afford it, is a trend toward a less efficient use of land to produce food. It is a trend toward greater world hunger. And that trend must be reversed, otherwise all our other efforts to end hunger will be negated by the increased consumption of animal-source foods, and its concomitant decrease in the efficiency of agricultural land, as nation develop.

As developing nations gradually become developed, the middle and upper classes increase in number and more persons adopt a Western pattern diet. This increases the land needed per person, making the hunger problem worse. The amount of land being used to produce food is not keeping pace with the combination of an increase in the population and an increase in the percent of the population who adopt Western eating habits.

There are many reasonable voices telling people in developed nations to eat less fat, more whole grains, and less meat and dairy. But there are also many unthinking elements of culture that subtly promote unhealthy food choices: junk food, fast food, high fat snack foods, etc. If we are to conquer world hunger, the culture must change worldwide. The preferred diet of those persons who have the means to eat what they choose must be a healthy diet, with limited amounts of animal-source foods, and a reduced fat intake (under 20% instead of over 30%).

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