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”

8 thoughts on “Should we eat meat?”

  1. This is so interesting Catherine. I’ve felt at times recently that I’ve had to ‘defend’ my decision not to be a vegan. Although I love fruit and veg and I’m very picky about meat, I’m not ready to give up eggs, the milk in my tea or cheese – how could I contemplate life without cheese?!
    I too am concerned about anyone who gives up an entire food group (any food group, not just meat) without properly understanding the consequences and planning properly for it. For me, it’s about everything in moderation.

    1. Wow – that’s interesting to hear. So many people seem to think that vegan is the healthiest option, but it really isn’t right for everyone! If we can all do our bit to help the planet but keep healthy at the same time then we’re on to a winner, and that looks different for everyone.

  2. I was mainly vegan for 18 months, but I put on weight, had no energy and got lots of migraines. I did still eat cheese and eggs. Also every few months I would get a strong urge to eat meat.

    Then I started eating small amounts of lean organic meat or wild fish regularly and I cut down massively on wheat, bread, grains, and coffee. My migraines stopped, my energy levels bounced up and I lost weight. I have felt much healthier since.

    1. Well done for listening to your body – our genes are all different, not everyone suits a 100% vegan diet and there are many ways that we can help our health and the environment.

  3. Thanj you so much for such a well thought out article. Its given me lots to think about, and in the meantime I shall stick with my all things in moderation.

  4. Yes yes yes, I’m with you all the way on this. Buy sustainable, local, free range, organic etc. and know where all your food comes from and that it’s quality. Personally for me, I find it fascinating on how foods make me feel. Having done the whole30 and gradual reintroduction of foods I’m pretty sure a lot of cheese makes me irritable. But eggs keep me calm and steady for a while. And a good balance of meat and fish alongside buckets of veg and fruit is the way to go. But it’s personal to what suits you. I’m not convinced at all that a diet where you have to be loaded with supplements can be a good diet. Also wondering about the amount of soy in all the vegan meat alternatives. Do high levels of soy affect oestrogen? I just remember something in my fertility battles.

    1. Thanks Tish. Yes, lots of soy isn’t great for everyone, I only eat fermented soy if I eat it at all, and it’s mostly GMO which is another grey area. I also completely agree with you with regards the supplements – the fact is we just don’t know enough about how all the nutrients (macros, micros, phytonutrients, fibre etc. etc.) work synergistically together to be able to recreate it perfectly. That old adage “you don’t know what you didn’t know until you know it”. We do need to move towards consuming less meat and getting rid of destructive intensive farming processes but there is a whole education programme that needs to be provided alongside that if we want people to be healthy. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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