Nutrition Science, Sustainable eating

Should we eat meat?

Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

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?

Images taken from https://www.evolvingsciences.com/Digestive%20system.html

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.

Patrik Baboumian’s supplement box https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPJWOWePRGs

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”

Binary choice: meat or 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 performance.

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 can.

Agricultural practices

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.

In summary

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”

Sustainable eating

Could eating sustainably also improve your health?

Zéro – my local in SW London https://www.thezeroshop.com/

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 health?

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.

Simple swaps:

  • 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
  • Also look for glass or stainless steel reusable water bottles to further reduce your plastic exposure. I also love my kids stainless steel lunchboxes – they aren’t the cheapest but they will last so much longer than a hard plastic alternative. Here are some of my favourite places to buy: https://www.littlegreenhome.co.uk/ https://www.asliceofgreen.co.uk/ https://www.littleacornstomightyoaks.co.uk/
  • 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!

Simple steps:

  • 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 good thing.
  • 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

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Fiolet, T. et al. (2018) Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort, British Medical Journal
  4. Monteiro, C. (2016) Food classification. Public health NOVA, World Nutrition Volume 7, Number 1-3 https://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/WN-2016-7-1-3-28-38-Monteiro-Cannon-Levy-et-al-NOVA.pdf