Food for Thought

Nicole Senior on why meat should be a tasty side show on your plate and not the main event

[NICOLE]
Nicole Senior

Some believe that eating meat was the reason modern man evolved to have such a large brain and occupy the top of Earth’s food chain. While we can survive without it, meat is a highly nutritious food that provides essential nutrients more difficult to obtain from plant foods.

While it’s true that livestock do contribute to environmental problems, the environmental argument against meat has been infused with emotion and ideology as to whether human beings should eat meat at all. The picture has also been muddied by the rampantly excessive consumption of meat in rich countries and the environmentally damaging effects of factory farming and here in Australia the scandal in recent weeks over the cruel slaughter methods of live cattle exported to Indonesia.

But we need pragmatic solutions for a world hungry for protein. It is unrealistic to think we will stop eating meat to save the environment, however we can produce meat in a more sustainable and ethical way, and eat less to minimise our environmental impact.

Meat from any source is nutrient-rich, however red meat – which attracts the most criticism – is rich in iron necessary for healthy blood, zinc required for immunity and vitamin B12 for healthy DNA and cell division.

Sure there are vegetarians who thrive on a meatless diet, but there are also those who don’t and have to take nutrient supplements to make up the shortfall. The degree of difficulty of a meatless diet is much higher than an omnivorous diet. In poor countries where people cannot afford to eat meat, iron-deficiency anaemia is one of the most common childhood diseases. Large nations undergoing economic development are also demanding more meat, so it is more urgent than ever to build sustainability into meat production systems around the world.

Avowed carnivores and vegans are dietary extremes while health is so often found in the happy medium. If we ate according to health guidelines (Australia's Guide to Healthy Eating; USA's My Plate), both our own health and the health of the planet and all the people living on it could be improved!

Warm beef salad

Credit: Warm beef salad from Eat to Beat Cholesterol by Nicole Senior and Veronica Cuskelly (New Holland)

So, although serious meat-lovers would do well to take a leaf out of the vegetarian book by including more protective plant foods, there’s no need to banish meat from your dinner plate – just cut back so it’s a tasty side-show filling no more than a quarter of the plate rather than the main event taking over the whole plate as served up in some steakhouses.

Luckily the amount of red meat recommended for health fits in nicely with the amount suggested for environmental sustainability. Check out the figures.

A model healthy diet according to Australia’s National Health & Medical Research Council, contains 65g a day of red meat (455g/1lb per week) and the American Institute of Cancer Research: World Cancer Research Fund says to limit red meat to no more than 500g (1lb 2oz) to reduce the risk of cancer.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Professor Tony McMichael and colleagues from the Australian National University have suggested we limit red meat to no more than 90g (3oz) a day (630g/1lb 5oz a week), based on the idea people in developed countries currently eat more than double this.

My takeout message is this – meat is nutritionally important, but we in rich countries should eat less. Eating less red meat (you don’t need to eat it every day as there is fish, chicken, pork with smaller environmental footprints as well as excellent – and low GI – plant sources of protein that we should be eating more of) will send a message to producers that they can use less intensive and more sustainable methods to produce beef. We need to focus on farming animals (and crops) more sustainably and with minimal environmental impact.

In 2010, Dietitian Nicole Senior won a DAA Outstanding Contribution Award which recognises her contribution to DAA’s Corporate Nutrition and Food and Environment Interest Groups. She played a leading role in the highly successful educational events on food and the environment called ‘Is our food costing the earth?’ held in Sydney in February in 2010 and ‘What a waste’ held in April 2011.