“Some find the whole matter of eating easy, while others find it hard. I used to be on the wrong side of this great divide and somehow, to my own surprise and relief, leaped over to the other side.” “First Bite – How we learn to eat” by Bee Wilson
I often recommend this book to my clients. Eating should be such a simple pleasure that fuels and nourishes our bodies. Yet so often it isn’t. We get stuck in a “diet culture” where food can be used to shame or punish us. Having studied nutrition, I’ve also been through my own journey – learning which foods nourish and support my health and which don’t, but simultaneously walking that tightrope of not being obsessed with vitamins and minerals, fibre, essential fats and probiotics etc! Too much focus on these aspects also doesn’t create a healthy and relaxed eating environment which is also essential for good digestion, mental health and healthy life-long habits.
Wilson is not a nutritionist nor a psychologist, yet she
artfully navigated both these disciplines to produce an extremely insightful
book that prompts us to reconsider our own relationship with food without ever
feeling we are being judged. I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t found doing
so a useful exercise, myself included.
I also found this book incredibly helpful when weaning my own children and supporting other parents through this same process. There is so much information about what to say and now say to new eaters and fussy toddlers, but getting a deeper understanding of why that is is invaluable in reacting intuitively and with confidence.
It also allows us to relax a little and allow our children to follow their own intuition with regards what and how much they need to eat. I think we can agree that our ultimate aim is to raise children with a good understanding of how the right foods help them to develop and thrive, and also build a healthy relationship with and desire to eat these foods for the long term.
When it comes to raising healthy eaters or changing our own eating habits, understanding the “why” of how we eat is just as essential as structuring our plates in the right way and reading this book has also helped me to support my clients to bigger and better successes.
I have been asked for my opinion countless times now, on the recent Netflix film “The Game Changers”. Close friends have called me excitedly to talk about their new found vegan diet, and clients are increasingly asking me for help with cutting out meat and animal products.
But many seem somewhat confused that I’m not eating a vegan diet myself? The film was indeed very compelling. But I can assure you that I’m not vegan, and as a nutrition professional I have very solid reasons for the choices that I make around my own diet, as well as advising others with theirs and helping people make sense of the overwhelm of “information” that bombards us on a daily basis.
So why am I not vegan?
The first thing missing from the film for me was individuality. Functional medicine – which underpins my nutrition training – recognises is that we are all individuals, no two of us are exactly the same genetically or in terms of our lifestyles and life experiences.
For some, many even, a vegan can be fantastic and perfectly healthy. There is growing pressure on cutting down animal farming from an environmental perspective as well as the ethical factors for which people choose a vegan lifestyle, and all these things should be considered in the bigger picture, but if you’re choosing to eat only plant-based foods, you need to know how to feed yourself well and this is not something I feel the film either conveyed or equipped the viewer to do.
“If you’re choosing to eat only plant-based foods, you need to know how to feed yourself well”
Secondly, I want to take a moment to raise the question around the science of research. My training involved numerous hours learning how to research appraise the whole body of research evidence around a particular issue and review it critically. If that doesn’t make sense I apologise, but it basically means that I have done my time learning how to assess the scientific evidence for any number of dietary and nutrient-based hypotheses, and I do this on an almost daily basis when working with my clients.
The film flashed up and referred to many studies, but on closer inspection, many of them were what is called “cherry-picked” to support an argument, ie. they didn’t also take present the other side of the argument. James Cameron, one of the directors, actually owns a vegan food business – did you know that? He stands to make a direct profit from creating more vegans in the world. In the world of scientific research this would be classed as a “conflict of interest”. It doesn’t mean his motivations are not right, but it adds a aspect of doubt that should be considered.
And lastly, I’m tiring of the “binary choice” that we seem to be getting thrust upon us at every turn. There can be huge benefits in increasing plant-based foods in our diets, but why did the film instead push the extreme outcome of excluding animals completely?
It compared our human digestive tract to that of a lion – completely different, I agree – but not of a cow (you guessed it – also completely different) I couldn’t find a picture of a cow sorry – but here’s another carnivore, a dog, and here’s the cow. Which looks more like the human digestive tract?
Do we really need animal protein?
Ok, so that covers the my main points of complaint for the film, now for why I eat meat… No, we don’t necessarily need animal protein, but there are a few factors to consider if you want to give it up, and certainly if you’re an athlete (as many of those in the film were), serious consideration does need to be given to this aspect.
For an athlete like Patrik Baboumian who was featured in the film, there is a greater requirement for protein than eating a typical vegan diet can easily provide. A simple flick into his YouTube channel will reveal exactly what he does eat, and it consists of a number of daily protein shakes, and many additional supplements. That’s not to say we all need to eat that much protein, or that his diet isn’t healthy, but protein needs to be considered, and skimming over that and implying that a body builder can get enough protein from an average vegan diet is rather misleading. Are you happy to take artificial supplements for your day to day life? I’m not.
How much protein do we need, and how do we get it?
The film also suggested that there is the same amount of protein in a peanut butter sandwich as is found in three eggs. There is approx. 18g protein in three eggs, which would translate to about 80g, or almost ¼ of a regular 400g sized jar peanut butter. I ask you this – how much peanut butter do you put in a sandwich?
“How much peanut butter do you put in a sandwich?”
Additionally, animal sources of protein are what are referred to as “complete proteins”, that is to say that they contain the full set of essential amino acids (protein molecules that our body needs to eat as it cannot break down other molecules and make them itself). Most vegetable sources do not contain all 9 of these amino acids, or if they do, few contain them all in sufficient quantities to be able to only eat that single source for our full protein requirement. For example, diets high in pulses can typically lack the amino acid methionine, but this is more plentiful in rice, hence the traditional “peas and rice” meal combination.
In the peanut butter v egg example, eggs contain all the essential amino acids, peanuts are however lacking in three of them (threonine, lysine and methionine), so they need to be topped up with other forms of protein (and before you ask, wheat isn’t a great source of lysine either so would not make up the shortfall!) You cannot just substitute eggs for peanut butter.
“You cannot just substitute eggs for peanut butter”
What else do I need to think about?
In addition to protein, there are a number of other
nutrients that are more difficult to attain easily on a vegan diet, namely: iron,
vit B12, vit D, omega 3 fats, vit A, iodine, choline, zinc.
With the exception of B12, it is possible to get these
nutrients without eating animal products, but would it not have been more
helpful for viewers to have helped them understand what they need to eat to get
sufficient quantities of them?
For many, calculating amounts of protein, their
corresponding amino acid content and additional nutrients isn’t easy or
practical – hello fussy kids or IBS and IBD sufferers that simply can’t
tolerate large quantities of pulses and legumes. For those, small amounts of animal
products provide an easy solution.
So why did the athletes and firemen do so much better on a vegan diet?
This is what made me feel truly
sad about the film. The exposure that it’s had could have done so much good.
The film picked individuals that consumed a lot of poor-quality food: hamburgers, deep-fried chicken, cheap processed meat and very little in the way of fresh vegetables, and gave them a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables.
“The film picked individuals that consumed a lot of poor-quality food: hamburgers, deep-fried chicken, cheap processed meat and very little in the way of fresh vegetables, and gave them a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables”
It really is that simple – any downside that they might have experienced from reduced proteins and nutrients plentiful in animal products (arguably negligible in the short term) was of course going to be far offset by the inclusion of nutrients that their bodies had previously been lacking – fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants plentiful in fresh vegetables and fruits.
This was not a robust scientific
study. If it had been, it would have taken into account different variables
such as reduced meat consumption with increased vegetables, and I would hypothesise
that this would have been at least as effective in improving health and
What about the environment?
I have tried to cover the fundamentals of why eating meat
may not be a bad thing for health, but in addition to that there is a lot of
attention more recently on the impact of eating meat on the environment. I
won’t go into detail as, in all honesty, I’m not qualified to do so. But it is
an area that interests me, and for which I am personally motivated to do what I
The film showed images of large-scale industrial livestock farming in desolate fields (that may or may not have previously been lush forest) and urged us not to eat meat from them.
The meat I eat does not come from such farms. I am fortunate to be able to source meat from organic, small-scale, high welfare British farms. Not everyone in the world has this option, and the research does suggest that the whole world population cannot now be fed on a diet that includes animal products to the scale at which we consume them, but the meat, dairy and eggs that I personally choose to consume is not from farms such as those depicted.
I also do not eat it in the quantities also depicted in the film. I simply wouldn’t fit it all in, especially around the amount of veggies I eat, and it’s definitely not necessary. I don’t want to provide a precise guide on how much you need as this is so personal at many levels (please get in touch if you would like help working out what is right for you), but for most, 3-5 portions of meat/fish/eggs (always including oily fish) a week alongside careful protein planning should provide enough of the nutrients you might otherwise find lacking.
Please also take a closer look at the farms you buy from,
and ask questions of your butcher, farmers market stall owner about how they
produce the food they are selling. Get comfortable with what you feel is right
for you from a welfare, ethics, environmental and health perspective. With the
changes in food legislation that look likely to happen with Brexit (US imports,
the lifting of EU bans on GMOs and pesticide use etc.) this is all the more
important to do now.
The environmental impact of plant-based foods
“Are your avocados sustainably grown or are they intensively grown on deforested land and shipped all the way from Mexico?”
Please also apply this to the plant-based foods you eat too. Are your avocados sustainably grown or are they intensively grown on deforested land and shipped all the way from Mexico? Is your almond milk made from local organic almonds, or Californian almonds heavily sprayed with pesticides which are decimating bee populations? How much energy did it take to produce, package and transport the foods you’re eating, and are there any additional waste or pesticide issues that accompany them?
“Is your almond milk made from local organic almonds, or Californian almonds heavily sprayed with pesticides which are decimating bee populations?”
This is the bigger issue for me right now, and one I’m keen to share on here and via my social media. Plus it’s a conversation that’s so important – it’s not binary, it needs to be openly discussed if we want to make any real progress.
My personal diet and the message I share around healthy eating has not changed in light of this film or any others that I’ve seen. I continue to preach the message that the majority of people should be eating more plants – 10 portions of veg and fruit per day. Initiatives like “meat-free Monday” are brilliant for helping people to reach that target. But I won’t be eliminating animal foods, (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) from my diet.
I will continue to choose high-quality and responsibly farmed products animal products, and I will continue to eat them in moderation – not every day, never more than ¼ of my plate at a time, and always alongside plenty of fresh vegetables. And I will strive to uphold these standards across all food items I consume, plant- as well as animal-based. For me, this is the right balance between supporting my health and the environment right now, but I remain open to new research and ideas that might change that.
What’s your take? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below…
“I eat meat, not every day, never more than ¼ of my plate at a time, and always alongside plenty of fresh vegetables”
To date, I’ve largely shied away from speaking up about my
personal views on the environment and sustainability, but I am starting to
appreciate how my knowledge as a nutritionist, experience as a home cook and
motivations as a mother (and planet citizen) really have put me in a unique
position right now to start to tackle two of the biggest issues facing mankind:
our deteriorating health and planet.
It’s fantastic to see so much awareness of both issues, but
marrying the two in all my actions is really something I want to both do and share
now. I’ve long preached the health benefits of using “real” natural and
unprocessed foods; I’ve tried to inspire with healthy recipes and empower my
clients with the ability to start using them themselves to the great benefit of
their personal health.
I know we have busy lives and cooking everything from scratch
just isn’t always an option, but I really feel that if we all do a little bit
more every day/week/month/year, we really do have the power to influence not
just our own health, but also that of the planet.
How does reducing plastic and packaging improve our
Plastic – I don’t think this needs any clarification
from a sustainability perspective, but what does it have to do with our health?
Well, you may have heard that BPA plastic is not a good thing – it has been
shown to disrupt our endocrine system (hormones) and result in a number of
health conditions such as infertility and cancer1, but there’s far
less information available about other types of plastics. Whilst that means we
can’t prove other plastics are damaging our health, we can’t really prove they
aren’t until someone does that research. We are exposed to plastic in so many
ways, from the water we drink to the air we breathe, but there are many things
within our power to reduce our exposure to plastic, and avoiding them touching
our food is one of them.
Eliminate cling-film if you haven’t already, and treat yourself to some lovely beeswax wraps. When storing things in the fridge, simply use a container instead – IKEA have some very affordable glass containers which can even be purchased with natural bamboo lids
Swap plastic milk cartons for glass bottles – plastic compounds have a particular affinity to fats, so whilst dry goods store quite well in plastic containers, fatty foods are far more likely to get contaminated. Try to prioritise switching these items first to maximise the health benefits of your efforts
Don’t take receipts! Most shops can email you receipts now if you need them and I would really encourage you to ditch them. “Paper” receipts actually contain BPA, so if you’ve handled one, it’s on your skin and could also transfer to any food items you subsequently touch
Chemical toxins – the drive to swap out our shower
gels and shampoo bottles for bars is huge right now for environmental reasons,
but this, and similarly doing away with our cleaning product bottles can also
improve our health. There are so many other toxins lurking in our cleaning
products, skin care and toiletries, and these too can cause disruptions to
hormones, as well as burden our detoxification system which is already working
hard on detoxing natural waste from our bodies as well as unavoidable toxicants
like air pollution.
Make your own:
Multi-surface cleaner – most cleaning jobs can
be undertaken with white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. I’ll be honest, I do
miss my limescale remover, but vinegar does work just as well with patience and
a little elbow grease and I figure I’m getting a workout at the same time so I
am sucking that up!
A great non-toxic multi-surface cleaner can
be made by simply mixing 750mls of white vinegar (2%) with 30 drops of
essential oil (my favourite is lemon) in a reusable spray bottle. Vinegar can
easily be bought in bulk or from your local bulk refill shop and a bottle of
essential oil will last you ages (it’s also great as a scent for the washing
too, avoiding the fragranced conditioners!)
Look at what’s in your deodorant, aluminium is a no-no too in my book, and whilst there are plenty of plastic-packaged aluminium-free options, I make my own using this recipe and it’s probably the best performing one I’ve ever tried too!
Have a go at making your own soaps and other “smellies”. I was given this book and it’s a total gem for getting started, otherwise get on Pinterest and You Tube and there are lots of recipes to get you started
Wholefoods – going plastic-free inevitably means that you’ll be cutting down on the amount of processed foods you buy (goodbye ready meals!) and increasing wholefoods instead. Did you know that ultra-processed foods account for more than 50% of food purchases in the UK2 and that increasing ultra-processed foods by 10% leads to a greater than 10% increased risk in certain cancers3? If reducing your plastic packaging reduces your consumption of ultra-processed foods then this can only be a good thing for your health!
Check the ingredients labels – if there are more than 5 ingredients, it’s classed as ultra-processed4 so even if it is beautifully packaged in paper, you probably want to avoid it anyway for your health and the implications for energy usage in its production
Follow my social media and blog for quick ideas on how to make your own healthy recipes and staples from real foods. It can seem daunting at the start, but bear with me – I am a busy mum, I don’t have time for really complicated recipes, so just start and build on them one by one
If you’ve kids, get them in on the activities as well – this is a big win for me as I can double up time spent with them as well and I find it makes the whole process much more enjoyable (well, usually shall we say…) Not every task is suitable, but picking your own fruits and vegetables in the summer, baking and preparing vegetables for meals and lunchboxes, these are all tasks that with a bit of spin, can be viewed as activities rather than chores
Mindfulness – yep! Contrary to the crippling fear you
might now be experiencing as you contemplate having to cook everything from
scratch so that you can live healthily and save the planet on top of your day
jobs(!), making these changes could actually be quite therapeutic…
Cooking a new recipe requires concentration and switches-off
that “monkey mind” that’s always racing in the background. Switching off is a
Sourcing plastic-free foods can also bring us
closer to nature as we head to farmers markets and farm shops to buy them, and
nature itself is a well-proven stress reliever
By thinking more about the foods we eat, we
connect more with our own bodies, tuning in to what they need, eating less and making
healthier choices as an unintentional but very positive consequence
So there you have it – saving the planet and improving your
health through less plastic exposure, less chemical exposure, increasing
natural whole foods and being more mindful!
Be happy, be healthy and save the world, Catherine x
Rubin, B.S. (2011) Bisphenol A: an endocrine
disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects, The journal of
steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, vol 127, issues 1-2, p. 27-34
Rauber, F. et al. (2019) Ultra-processed
foods and excessive free sugar intake in the UK: a nationally representative
cross-sectional study, British Medical Journal, vol 9
Fiolet, T. et al. (2018) Consumption
of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective
cohort, British Medical Journal