What the Health, The Game Changers, BBC’s documentary Meat: A Threat to Our Planet? are they “agenda driven” films to turn people vegan? Does a vegan diet makes sense from a nutrition, environmental and even from an ethical perspective?

Point number 1: Animals are an important aspect when it comes to achieving healthy soil in which to grow crops.

Most people believe that grazing is negative, but grazing is actually essential to balanced ecosystem functioning. It stimulates plant growth, and helps press the seeds into the ground. The cattle also deposit urine and manure onto the land, which act as fertiliser. In this way, grazing herds accelerate the building of fertile topsoil.

Point number 2: Regenerative managed livestock remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Researchers have found that when you have an intact ecosystem, which includes grazing animals, the soil microbes process large amounts of methane. Australian researchers found the total methane emitted from cattle in a well-managed system was fully offset by the soil microbes.

A study conducted by The National Trust, a conservation non-profit based in the United Kingdom, found that grass-fed beef production reduced greenhouse gas emissions when the carbon sequestration and storage of grassland pasture was considered.[http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/NT-report-Whats-your-beef.pdf] 

The point is when you give animals room to roam (and poop), you lower their overall carbon footprint.

Point number 3: Not all soil is suitable for plant agriculture.

Here in the UK we have extensive grasslands that, although generally unsuitable for growing crops, are perfect for grazing livestock; turning inedible grass into high-quality, nutritious protein.

Point number 4: it is unfair of the BBC to paint with the same brush British farming with intensive meat production in the States. Let’s compare apples with apples. More to read here

Point number 5: Industrial soil depleting plant agriculture could be responsible for the death of billions of wild animals.

From scraping away the native landscape, intensive field operations, pesticides if non-organic, and fish-killing nitrogen runoff into rivers and lakes. Think insects, rodents, reptiles, birds, fish killed in the process of industrial agriculture, particularly mono cropping. So my question is do we think life of small animals as less significant/valuable than large animals?

Mono cropping is used in part to feed animals, yes but also think of meat substitutes made with soya, the soya comes from this massive mono crops generally GMO, think wheat as well in so many food products and so this presents an ethical dilema as well for all of us concerned about our food choices involving killing animals.

In many cases, whole intact ecosystems—grasslands, wetlands, forests—are destroyed in order to cultivate giant fields of hemp, flax, rice, soy, peas, wheat, etc. 

You see Veggie or Omnivore, everyone who eats large-scale industrial food is implicated.

Point number 6: The claim that greenhouse gas emissions from cattle are more than all of the total forms of transportation in the world combined (as stated in The Game Changers) does not seem to be true : globally, the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions are electricity and heat (31%), transportation (15%), manufacturing (12%) agriculture (11%) and forestry (6%). 

Source: Climate Analysis Indicators tool (World Resources Institute, 2017).

Carbon dioxide emitted from our need to have warm houses in winter and cool homes in summer, cars and food transported out of season from faraway lands, amongst other sources, contribute a far larger proportion of green house gas emissions than agriculture itself.

Saying that, Agro-ecology states that large-scale farming and the use of chemicals in the form of fertilisers and pesticides are damaging to the planet and are consequently unsustainable.

So what is the answer?

Support farms that produce the highest quality organic meat in a way that is good for the land, the animals and us. It’s about farming mirroring nature as much as possible.

The Sustainable Food Trust (2017)  recommends a reduction in intensive farming, particularly mono-crop or mono-livestock farming and a return to a more traditional livestock/crop rotation to further enhance carbon sequestration. This should improve soil quality and sequestre carbon from the atmosphere.

*Carbon sequestration refers to the storage of carbon that has the immediate potential to become carbon dioxide gas.

Do I need to stop eating meat for my health?

Nutrient comparaison: vegans vs meat eaters

Protein: Whilst dietary protein can be found both in animal and plant foods, it is well documented that animal proteins are superior in terms of their amino acid profile and bioavailability. This is a firmly established science. Most plant proteins are limiting in various essential (meaning we need to get them from the diet) amino acids. Rice protein is deficient in lysine, pea contains about half of the minimum methionine content, and soya, while low in methionine, has just enough not to be considered deficient. Now, if you eat enough total protein from a variety of plant sources you can make up for these limitations but you need to be very vigilant and well informed.

Protein requirements for each person will vary widely, as is the case with all macro and micronutrients, but the estimated average daily need for an adult over the age of 19 is approximately 0.8g/kg of body weight. For context, an average sized salmon filet has about 20g of protein and 100g of dried pulses contain about 10g.

Studies that have compared omnivore, vegetarian and vegan diets have found that on the whole vegetarians and vegans have a lower overall intake of protein (Kristensen et al., 2015). 

At one time it was thought (Tucker, 2014) that a high intake of dietary protein was linked to a higher acid load resulting in adverse affects on calcium homeostasis, but further studies (Coa, 2017) did not replicate this finding.

Fact: Humans are omnivores (Mann, 2018) and this means we can eat both plant and animal foods.

Fats: Whilst omega 3 is available from plant based and vegetarian diets, it requires the additional conversion step from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to EPA/DHA (long chain omega 3 fats), which may result in reduced bioavailability.

While it’s possible for some alpha-linolenic acid from plant foods to be converted into EPA and DHA, that conversion is poor in humans. It’s about 5 to 10 percent of ALA going into EPA and about 2 to 5 percent of ALA getting converted to DHA.

Very little of the plant-based ALA gets converted into DHA. That conversion depends on zinc, iron, and B6, which vegetarians and vegans are less likely than omnivores to get enough of. This can lead to a double whammy effect where vegans are not eating preformed DHA, but they are also eating less of the nutrients required to convert the precursor plant fat ALA into the active EPA and DHA.

Micronutrients

B12: As we are well aware, vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is only available from animal sources and it is essential for neurological development and maintenace (Segovia-Siapco and Sabate, 2018; Rogerson, 2017).

This means that it is essential for people following vegan and vegetarian diets to supplement, eat fortified foods, and check on their serum B12 status on a regular basis. Lack of B12 and folate can lead to high levels of homocysteine which is implicated in heart disease (Pawlak, 2015).

Iron and the important concept of bioavailability:Although vegetarians often have similar iron intakes to omnivores on paper, it is more common for them and especially vegans to be iron deficient due to non-haem plant iron being less bioavailable and harder to absorb (Anderson and Frazer, 2017).

The important concept of anti nutrients: 

Iron: The absorption of non-heme, or plant-based, iron is inhibited by several commonly consumed substances such as coffee, tea, and dairy products because of their calcium, supplemental fibre, oxalate, and phytate. But none of these substances with the exception of calcium has a significant effect on the absorption of heme iron from animal products. Again, this explains why vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce plant-based iron absorption.

Zinc: Zinc is another example. Many plant foods that contain zinc such as legumes, also contain phytic acid, which inhibits zinc absorption. Zinc  is more efficiently absorbed from animal protein foods, thus creating a potential risk of deficiency in vegans and vegetarians (Rogerson, 2017).  

How can Meat be part of an ethical diet?

Follow a flexitarian diet. The Western diet encourages the consumption of animal-based protein multiple times a day, this is clearly detrimental to the planet.  Consider instead eating 3 portions of animal protein per week (including oily fish, eggs and dairy) which would cover most micronutrient needs (vitamin B12, omega 3, iodine and iron). A portion of animal protein is about the size of a pack of playing cards and remember moderation is key here.

Eat better meat: Failing to distinguish between processed versus unprocessed, overcooked versus slow-cooked, and grass-fed versus industrially-raised meat is comparing apples to oranges. 

As an example, Chicken McNuggets can contain more than 30 ingredients, including fillers, flavouring, and preservatives!! Please let’s not compare this type of so called “meat” with grass-fed beef raised on sustainable pasture without pesticides and antibiotics.

Another poignant example: Pastured eggs contain two and a half times the omega-3 fatty acids and twice as much vitamin E as eggs that cage-raised hens produce (H.D. Karsten et al., 2010)

So, yes, industrial meat is bad. The solution may not be to abandon meat entirely or keep eating factory-farmed beef and hope for the best. Instead, Eat grass-fed, organic meat, sourced as locally as possible.

When meat is consumed, we should ALLavoid intensively farmed meat. Grass fed animals from a local farm would be the ideal environmentally.

What can you do to sustain the planet?

Support diverse agriculture (many cultures versus monocultures). Eat a variety of plant products, not just the main staples of corn, potatoes, rice and soybeans. The improved variety will result in a greater microbiome diversity which research has shown may improve health (Singh et al., 2017) and diverse agriculture is also better for the environment (Mariotte et al., 2018). 

Go organic. Support farms that have been farming organically for years. Their animals enjoy their natural grass and forage-based diet, they grow into healthy animals, free from unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics and GM feed (Gonzalez et al., 2019).

Daylesford farm in Gloucestershire is one I support personally. Why? They choose British breeds who thrive in their native landscape and encourage healthy biodiversity on their farm. They avoid waste so manure and kitchen waste compost are returned to the soil as rich natural fertilisers. They have their own abattoir to ensure the highest animal welfare and reduce food miles.

Go local – food transport is linked to greater global greenhouse emissions. Support local producers by purchasing local and save carbon miles at the same time.

Eat seasonally. Forcing fruits and vegetables to grow out of season and quickly, requires many more resources than eating seasonally.

Eat less and less often – it is in the interests of food manufacturers to encourage customers to eat more (Steenhuis & Poelman, 2017) and more often (Sadeghirad et al., 2016) and they actively plan for it as part of their marketing. Increasing amounts of research relating to intermittent fasting actually highlights that going back to the old-fashioned 3 meals a day (or even 2) is actually much better for health (Manoogian & Panda, 2017).

What do I do?

I choose nutrient dense whole foods: Plentiful plant balanced with select amounts of highly nutritious, animal-based whole foods, like wild salmon, wild mackerel, pastured organic egg, organic chicken, grass fed organic beef, good healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and always foods that are as close to nature as possible. But yes, I think quality meat is part of a nutrient dense diet.

I get asked so many times whether I recommend Paleo, Keto, low carb, low fat, high fat, Mediterranean, vegetarian…As a Registered Nutritional Therapists, I am ’Diet Agnostic’. Regardless of my personal beliefs, I recommend individualised nutrition to suit the client in front of me and I am very objective with my advice. No size fits all but to be clear, I think a diet that is high in plants and fibre is great.

I always recommend real foods and ironically, the anti-meat messages could be leading people to less healthful options. As an example, in The Game Changers, the wife of a vegan NFL player can be observed cooking vegan ‘healthy’ meals for some of the team including vegan chicken wings, vegan mac and cheese, vegan burgers and vegan peanut butter cheesecake. It made me laugh out loud when I saw this! These are highly processed fake meat foods made typically from GMO soya.

Saying that, I love the fact that the debate is open about ways to protect our fragile planet, ways to care about food production, about animal welfare, ways to farm ethically and respectfully. We need to be more connected with the process of putting food on our plates so this debate is opening the eyes of many about where meat comes from which is great. Eat meat but respect the animal, using all the cuts, from nose to tail and pay enough for your meat so that the farmers can be rewarded for the amazing job they do for us. Let’s be grateful and not expect/demand cheap meat in our supermarkets and restaurants, let’s not be part of the problem by supporting the wrong farming and food production methods.

I do hope the arguments explained in this blog help you understand the bigger picture and make informed choices in the face of misinterpretation of science in recent so called “documentaries”.

References:

Anderson GJ and Frazer DM (2017) Current understanding of iron homeostasis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 106(Suppl 6): 1559S-1566S

Coa JJ (2017) High dietary protein intake and protein-related acid load on bone health. Current Osteoporosis Reports. Vol 15, Issue 6 pp 571-576

Gonzalez N, Marques M, Nadal M, Domingo JL (2019) Occurrence of environmental pollution in foodstuffs : a review of organic versus conventional food. Food and Chemical Toxicology125: 370-375

Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL (2009). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont. Wadsworth.

“How much protein do you need every day? – Harvard Health ….” 25 Jun. 2019, health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096.

H.D. Karsten, P.H. Patterson, R. Stout and G. Crews (2010). Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. Cambridge University Press.

Kristensen NB, Madsen ML, Hansen TH, Allin KH, Hoppe C, Fagt S, Lausten MS, Gobel RS, Vestergaard H, Hansen T, Pedersen O (2015) Intake of macro and micronutrients in Danish Vegans. Nutrition Journal. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-015-0103-3

Manoogian ENC, Panda S (2017) Circadian rhythms, time restricted feeding and healthy aging. Aging Research Reviews39: 59-67

Mann NJ (2018). A brief history of meat in the human diet and current health implications. Meat Science. 169-179

Mariotte P, Mehrabi Z, Bezemer TM, De Geyn GM, Kulmatiski A, Drigo B, Veen GFS, van der Heyden MGA, Kardol P (2018) Plant soil feedback: bridging natural and agricultural sciences. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 33(2) 129-142.

Pawlak R (2015). Is vitamin B12 deficiency a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in vegetarians? American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 48 (6) e11-26.

“Protein Complementation – American Society for Nutrition.” 22 Mar. 2011, nutrition.org/protein-complementation/.

Rogerson D (2017) Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and excercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 14:36

Sadeghirad B, Dunhanet T, Mataghisoshah S, Campbell NR, Johnston BC (2016) Influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing on children’s dietary intake and preference: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised trials. Obesity Review17 (10) 945-59.

Segovia-Siapco G, Sabate J (2018) Health and sustainability outcomes of vegetarian dietary patterns. A revisit of the EPIC-Oxford and the Adventist Health Study-2 Cohorts. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.1038/s41430-018-0310-z.

Singh RK, Chang HW, Yan D, Lee KM, Ucmak D, Wong K, Abrouk M, Farahuck B, Nakamura M, Zhu TH, Bhutani T, Liao W (2017) Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. Journal of Translational Medicine15(1): 73

Steenhuis I, Peolman M (2017) Portion size: Latest developments and interventions. Current Obesity Reports6(1) 10-17.

Tucker KL (2014) Vegetarian diet and bone status. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Ajcn 071621.




Comments (3)

Muchas gracias Eva por ayudarnos a entender mejor que opciones saludables debemos elegir para poner en nuestros platos. Gran trabajo de información científica y contrastada que agradecemos mucho en un tiempo en que hay tanta charlatanería sobre nutrición.
Hay mucho trabajo detrás de tu informe que de forma altruista compartes con tanta gente. Hay una gran profesional detrás de el. Gracias de nuevo.

Thanks Eva, that’s really useful

I am glad you find it useful James. Thank you for the feedback.

Comment to James Butler Cancel reply