1 August 2011

Food for Thought

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

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.


Greg said...

Very good article.......truly is 'food for thought'.

Joan said...

I am a farm woman in Nebraska. We feed cattle and would most likely be considered a "factory farm" by many misled people. We are a feedlot and we can feed 4,000 head on our farm. Each animal is cared for more than many humans on our planet. They received a balanced diet each day according to their age and size. The cattle are monitored daily for any signs of sickness. Cattle adjust quickly to temperature and weather changes. We still do all we can to make certain the animals have plenty of room to lay down and move around the pen. Most people think of a factory farm as something that crowds animals and causes abuse. I would encourage you to remember that the majority of us in livestock production take very good care of our animals. There are bad apples in every group of people/careers so we just keep doing what we can to weed them out. Thank you for keeping meat in the diet as too many people are missing out on the wonderful benefits of ZIP-zinc, iron and protein!

GI Group said...

Thank you Joan

Anonymous said...

excellent article! we all got to tread as lighlty on this earth as possible...;)

CareShare said...

Good luck getting people behind this one. Though you make some VERY fascinating points, you're going to have to do more than bring up a few things that may be different than what weve already heard. What are trying to say here? What do you want us to hink? It seems like you cant really get behind a unique thought. Anyway, that's just my opinion.

Dennis said...

What has greenhouse gas emmissions to do with red meat ?? It is flawed science and hug a buloo. Next we will be told to cut down trees as they 'exhale' CO2. What crap!!!

Elizabeth Braun said...

Veganism is not an extreme. The diseases (and crazy treatment plans) that come from eating the standard western diet are extreme!!

Veganism is actually only extreme in being extremely healthy and most vegans are so clued up on nutrition that in real terms, very few indeed suffer from deficiencies. It interests me that when deficiencies are mentioned among vegetarians, it's frequently from countries where food resources are poorer and the general diet is too lop-sided for balanced nutrition. Therein lies the blame - NOT the lack of animal foods.

Richard Buckdale said...

I was very excited to come across a dietician who is concerned about the environmental impact of diet.

Developing ideas, suggestions and strategy by integrating the research and findings from various scientific disciplines is indeed a recipe for success, and a good counter to the blinkered, "frog in the well" approach.

I will certainly be taking on board Nicole's takeout message.

At the same time, although I'm not currently a vegetarian, I do feel the ethical argument against eating meat shouldn't be so lightly dismissed as being "infused with emotion and ideology". Humans accept that, in general, we have no right to kill other human beings. Are we so anthropocentric that we cannot consider extending this principle to other animals? What right do we have to cut short the life of a young calf, lamb or piglet? After all, they also have a brain and nervous system not so different from ours.

Perhaps we humans should take more seriously the idea of harvesting the oceans for vegetable protein.

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Anonymous said...

how do you think humans evolved? If we were too concerned about whether we have the right to kill an animal to feed our family and allow the human species to grow and evolve thanks to vital complete amino acids only found in meat.. then we'd still be chimps living in trees.

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