Dinner in 2050

06/02/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016
Stacy Spensley via Flickr

What will our dinner plate look like in 2050? As Yogi Berra commented, there is nothing more difficult to predict than the future, except that dinner for most people is likely to be different than it is today.

Several realities will play out: the number of mouths to be fed will increase from about 7 billion today to about 9.5 billion by 2050. Climate change is happening at a rate that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago and the political will to mitigate this has not been apparent; in the U.S., even modest proposals are being met with obstruction at every step by oil and coal interests and their Congressional puppets.

Already, extremes in temperature and drought are affecting food production adversely, and this will almost certainly increase in ways that are difficult to predict. Even now only a tiny fraction of the world's population eats an adequate and healthy diet. In the U.S., fewer than 5% of Americans meet the national dietary goals: sugar, refined starch, and potatoes comprise about 40% of our national caloric intake, fruit and vegetable consumption remains low, and red and processed meat intake is high.

Globally, the majority of the world's population lives on an unbalanced diet high in carbohydrates that is becoming increasingly refined and high in sugar, and almost a billion persons have inadequate caloric intake. The transition to an industrial, highly processed diet, now fueling a pandemic of obesity and diabetes, is being accelerated by multinational corporations such as Coca Cola and Pepsi, who regard this as their market of the future.

Current U.S. trends in dietary patterns and health indicators suggest a troubling future. We recently analyzed U.S. national data from 2000 to 2010, examining 11 dietary variables that strongly predict risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. On average, the overall quality of diet had modestly improved over this period, although it remained far from optimal. About half of the improvement was due to a large decrease in trans fat, but soda consumption also decreased modestly, and whole grains and fruits increased slightly.

However, the overall improvement masked a disturbing feature in these trends: all of the increase was in those with higher incomes and education; among those with low income and education, there was no improvement at all, and the gap in dietary quality by socio-economic status doubled over the decade.

Because the dietary-quality score strongly predicts health outcomes and death, it is no surprise that that these trends in diet quality have moved in parallel with widening income disparities and mortality trends in the U.S. Thus, the emerging picture is of two Americas, whether viewed through an economic, health, or dietary lens.

These global and domestic trends suggest that our dinner plates in 2050 will look very different, depending on who we are: most common will be the global-industrial plate, comprised primarily of the cheapest and most profitable calories: refined starch and sugar. These may be paired with industrially synthesized fats that are now being manufactured from cheap carbohydrates. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein sources will be few.

Is this soylent green? Maybe nutritionally so, but I am confident that this will not be so dreary because there will be huge profit in marketing these ingredients in many forms, colors, and flavors -- as is already being done with ultra-processed foods.

A small, affluent fraction of the population may still be infatuated with the paleo plate, which emphasizes red meat and full-fat dairy products. This diet does minimize the adverse metabolic effects of refined carbohydrates, but is not optimal due to the high intakes of unhealthy fats and cholesterol. This diet will necessarily be limited to a small part of the global population, as it is extremely consumptive of land and water resources.

Fortunately, another option is possible, the smart and sustainable plate. The model for this plate is the traditional Mediterranean diet, which emphasized olive oil, abundant fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fish; moderate amounts of dairy foods, and only occasional red meat.

Notably, this diet sustainably supported a remarkable civilization on a semiarid land, and during the 1950s Greek men lived many years longer than American men. In the last 30 years, many lines of research have substantiated the health benefits of this diet and we now understand the important elements so that a similarly healthy diet can be created with the foods and flavors from other cultures and climates. We don't need to scour the world to find people eating this way now; they are in our studies right here in America, and we find they live longer and have a better quality of life than those consuming the traditional animal-based, industrial American diet.

How do we bring as many people as possible to a table where the smart and sustainable dinner is served? Fundamentally, we need to consider both the nutritional and sustainability aspects of food policies if we are to have healthy and secure dinners in 2050. This includes the need for careful analysis and research to ensure that every step of the food production and distribution system has the smallest environmental footprint possible.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the EAT Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's 2nd annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum (Stockholm, June 1-2, 2015). The EAT Stockholm Food Forum aims to convene thought leaders at the intersection of science, business and politics, to develop integrated strategies and synergic solutions toward a healthier and more sustainable global food system. For more information about EAT Stockholm Food Forum, read here.