Will a balanced diet also save the planet?

This research will look at whether eating a wider variety of foods will lower the risk of cancer and improve the health of the environment

  • Topic: Combination of cancers
  • Institution: International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
  • Country: France
  • Status: Ongoing
Researcher: Inge Huybrechts
  • Grant awarded: November 2020

Due to globalised and inefficient food and agriculture models characterised by industrial monocultures and decreased food biodiversity, our world is now facing a twin crisis of “destruction of habitats” coinciding with several “health emergencies and epidemics”, including infections with new viruses such as covid-19 but potentially also non-communicable diseases like cancer and overall mortality. We are very grateful for this WCRF support that will enable us to investigate how species diversity in diets is associated with cancer risk and mortality in European populations.”

– Inge Huybrechts


Our world is facing a major global cancer crisis. On top of that, we are seeing a decline in animal and plant biodiversity around the world that is impacting food and ecosystems. So, to what extent are the two issues linked? Are unhealthy diets that rely on just one type of food product not only increasing the risk of cancer, but also fuelling a decline in plant and animal species diversity?

Eating a more diverse and wider range of food types – known as food biodiversity – is associated with better nutrition by providing the right intake of vitamins and minerals, this is linked to a reduced risk of certain diseases. Not relying on one type of food or plant species also lowers the pressure on any one animal or plant type, which leads to increased stability, resilience, and higher productivity of natural and agricultural ecosystems. However, to date, little is known about the health and environmental co-benefits of food biodiversity in human diets.

Aims and objectives

The hypothesis underlying our proposed project ‘BioHealth’ is that food biodiversity in human diets contributes to better health outcomes while simultaneously protecting our environment and ecosystems.

Therefore, BioHealth aims to assess how species diversity in diets is associated with cancer risk and premature death. Biological pathways underlying these associations will also be investigated as well as co-benefits for planetary health.

How it will be done

BioHealth will make use of data from two large studies, which together consist of data from 691,000 participants. Data on these participants includes a blood sample at the start of the study, detailed information about their socio-demographics, health and lifestyle, and dietart intake that was recorded from questionnaires.

All foods consumed by the participants of these two studies will be attributed to the corresponding food species. The number of different species and how much of each species is eaten will be used to measure the food biodiversity in diets. Any links between food biodiversity, cancer risk and premature death will then be assessed.

Additionally, we will also investigate the underlying cellular and molecular pathways in our body that may link a diverse diet with cancer or death. Some of the participants also had their gut microbiome data recorded, and this will allow further analyses to see if there is a link between food biodiversity and microbiome diversity in the gut. The bacteria and other microorganisms in our gut are thought to be associated with several diseases.

Finally, the co-benefits of biodiverse diets for human and planetary health will be investigated by examining the relationship between planetary impact of biodiverse diets and human health.

Potential impact

BioHealth is expected to deliver impactful results of use for policy makers and the scientific community. It will contribute to the understanding of the potential effects of biodiverse diets on cancer risk and mortality and guide considerations around the promotion of a variety of species in view of human and planetary health.