Photo by Anthea Didaskalou: An egg contains the same amount of Vitamin B12 as a roast chicken breast.
We first posted this article in April this year. Today, we welcome some meaty myth-busting news to the mainstream, with a supplement on the benefits of a plant-based diet published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA). Doctors are being reassured that a plant-based diet is the way of the future, for our own health as well as the planet's. And scientific evidence now shows that a plant-based diet can meet the nutritional needs of children and adults...
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll most likely be familiar with one of our staple mantras for reducing your impact on the environment: Make Meat a Treat. Our website is full of evidence of the benefits of a veggie-centric diet on the environment, but what about the impact on your body? How will it be affected if you reduce your intake of animal products? Sustainable Table's Sofia Strandberg delves into the world of micronutrients...
In our nutrient-obsessed culture, meat and animal products are painted as a fundamental necessity to good health. They’re often touted as the best source of protein, iron and other nutrients, which can make anyone hesitant to eat less of it. But is this really true?
A group of leading dietitians and nutritionists, including Australia's favourite nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, are assuring us that a healthful, well balanced and highly nutritious diet can be achieved even when meat is not the leading player. As Stanton states in her recent MJA review, "dietary patterns may be more important than specific foods, and plant foods contain hundreds of protective factors". Stanton also states that "fears that a diet without meat mean a lack of protein can be put to rest".
"The recommendations (made by climate experts) to reduce meat consumption dovetail the dietary guidelines for increased consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and wholegrains", says Stanton.
That's good news for us, and good news for the planet, because, as Stanton also states in her review, "dietary choices influence not only health but also greenhouse gas emissions, with meals of similar energy content differing in their emissions by a factor of between two and nine". No prizes for guessing which is which!
We thought it time we went into some detail about the concerns surrounding a diet less reliant on meat, and spoke with Adelaide-based GP Registrar and member of the South Australia Committee for Doctors for the Environment, Dr Sam Manger. As Dr Manger tells us, diets rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds can provide just as many nutrients as meat-based diets, sometimes more, and can also help reduce our risk of many diseases and help us live longer, healthier lives.
Protein - Oh how we love to fret over it!
Out of all nutrients, protein (and getting the right amount of it) seems to cause us the most anxiety. Through its many advertising campaigns, the bigwigs of the meat and dairy industry sure have managed to convey the idea that unless you eat animal products, your body will be missing out. As a result, there’s probably not a single vegetarian out there that’s never been asked the question “but where do you get your protein from?”, in a seriously concerned tone. But as Dr Manger explains, there’s no need to worry.
“The recommended daily intake of protein is, on average, 56 grams, but the average meat-based diet will have you consuming a whopping 112 grams a day. That’s twice as much as necessary. In comparison, a standard vegetarian diet, that includes vegetables, legumes and some dairy products, will give you approximately 90 grams a day”, says Dr Manger. Yep, you read it right. Even vegetarians tend to get more than enough protein.
There’s a reason Popeye eats spinach...
And just as the meat industry has got us pothering over protein, they also have us irked over iron (remember this ad from the 90s?). It is often thought that a veggie-based diet can easily lead to anaemia (iron deficiency), especially amongst women. But as Dr Manger tells us, studies show that anaemia is no more common in people eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet, or vegan diet for that matter, than amongst meat eaters. Whilst meat contains a mix of heme iron (which is easily absorbed by the body) and non-heme iron (which isn't absorbed as easily), and vegetables and legumes contain only non-heme iron, vegetables actually contain more iron per calorie than meat, overall. For example, to get the same amount of iron as 100 calories of spinach provides, you would need to eat more than 1700 calories of sirloin steak. You can improve your absorption of non-heme iron by including lots of Vitamin-C rich foods in your diet, like broccoli, peppers, papaya and strawberries.
Then what about B12 and Zinc?
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient that can only be found in meat, dairy products and eggs.
“The good news is”, Dr Manger explains, “we don’t actually need much of this type of vitamin, only 2.4 micrograms a day, and we don't need to eat meat to get it." In fact, an egg contains the same amount of B12 as a roast chicken breast, and cup of yoghurt contains the same amount of B12 as a 90 gram piece of beef. "So eating the equivalent of one yoghurt (containing 1.4 mcg of B12) and 1 glass of milk (~1mcg), or two eggs (1.2 mcg) and one glass of milk, will have you covered."
As for Zinc, another essential vitamin, you’ll find it in beans, nuts, whole grains and dairy products. No need to turn to meat there either.
What eating fewer animal products will really be getting you...
With your dietary requirements covered, what would you really miss out on by reducing your consumption of animal products?
First up, studies show that people who eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet run a significantly lower risk of 'lifestyle' diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. And that’s not all:“A plant-based diet has been shown to reverse coronary heart disease, prevent high blood pressure, help manage chronic kidney disease, and in men it has been shown to assist in preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes. Studies also show that vegetarian men reduce their risk of dying from cancer by 52%, and herbivore females by 26%”, says Dr Manger.In addition, studies have found that eating processed meat, such as bacon, sausages or processed deli meats, is associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes.Beans, fruit and vegetables, on the other hand, have been shown to have the opposite effect. Research has identified five zones in the world, called Blue Zones, where people tend to live longer lives. One of the factors the Blue Zones have in common is a diet rich in vegetables, lentils, beans and nuts. In these zones, meat is eaten in a way that we might think of as a ‘condiment’ - of the highest quality, in small quantities and only twice a week. The latest draft Australian Dietary Guidelines also support a diet richer in vegetables and legumes, and lower in meat, particularly grain fed and processed meats.
So, there we go, reducing your meat intake will certainly not leave you lacking nutrients. In fact, it would most likely have the opposite effect, helping you stay healthy and charged up. It might even make you live longer. That is, if you actually do eat your veggies and beans, and not just lollies on your meat-free days. As Stanton says, "it doesn't mean that you just have a bucket of chips".
Check out our Hungry for Information section for more background on the environmental benefits of reducing your meat consumption.
Monday, June 04, 2012