Blog 

Here is where I share my thoughts, ideas and opinions about the world of nutrition, food and health. I hope you find good sense, helpful guidance and inspiration to eat great healthy food that makes you feel good.

I write regularly for GI News, an online newsletter for 60,000+ Australasian and International subscribers interested in the glycemic index (GI) and associated health topics such as diabetes, weight loss and a healthy heart. It’s a great read. http://www.gisymbol.com/category/gi-news/

 

12 Sep 2018

The animal food dilemma

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Meat and dairy products are valuable sources of nutrition yet a recent report by Greenpeace recommends limiting meat intake to 300g per week and dairy intake to 630g per week to lessen our environmental footprint. They say this would reduce global consumption of animal products by 50% by 2050. However, they did not have a nutrition expert involved so how can we be sure this advice supports good health? How do we reconcile the nutritional value of animal foods with their environmental footprint? Lets delve deeper into the animal food dilemma.

What is the most sustainable diet?

Meat has the greatest environmental footprint followed by dairy and then plant-foods.  This is because livestock farming requires more land and water; and animals produce more green house gas (GHG) emissions compared to plant foods.  You may think veganism (eating no animal products at all) is the most sustainable solution to feed our growing global population but you may be surprised to hear that it’s not, because growing crops doesn’t utilise all types of land. For example, some land is useless for growing fruits and vegetables but can be used for dairy farming or livestock grazing. In fact, a vegetarian diet including dairy products (lacto-vegetarian) has been identified as the most sustainable diet.

Eat a diet that is mostly plants, but some animal foods can be included in your diet and still be sustainable.

How much meat do you need?

In grappling with the animal food dilemma, we need to know how much we need – not want or crave, but actually need - for good health.  National dietary recommendations are a good place to start. Meat is part of the ‘meat and protein alternatives’ group that includes red meat, white meat, fish, eggs and plant-based alternatives like pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds.

The US Dietary Guidelines recommend 5-6.5 ounces (around 140g-185g) of meat or protein equivalents per day for a sedentary person.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 2-3 ‘serves’ of meat or alternatives per day, where one serve is:

65g of cooked red meat (100g raw);

80g cooked poultry (100g raw);

100g cooked fish (115g raw);

2 eggs;

1 cup (150g) cooked legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans);

170g tofu;

or 30g of nuts or seeds.  

If you do the math, both countries are recommending around 1300g (45oz) of meat (or equivalent) per week, which seems a lot more than the 300g limit Greenpeace is recommending, but of course not all serves from this group need to be meat. The Australian guidelines recommend limiting your cooked red meat intake to 455g per week and including plant-based foods in the mix. And remember smaller animals such as chickens and pigs, and wild animals such as deer, bison and kangaroo all have a smaller environmental footprint than cattle.

The question of how much meat we can get away with eating and still look after our health and the environment is hotly debated and depends on a myriad of factors including: location/region, climate, production method, land and water use, feed type, animal genetics, waste management, supply chain efficiency, transport and wastage. We as citizen-eaters can help by eating animals ‘nose-to-tail’ (not just our favourite bits) and not wasting any because throwing animal foods in the bin just adds insult to injury (it wastes the already significant environmental costs in producing it).

Enjoy a variety of protein sources including plant sources but limit meat intake – especially from large, high eco-footprint animals to around 400g a week, or two meals. Whatever you do, don’t waste a skerrick of food, especially animal food.

How much dairy do you need?

While Greenpeace recommend no more than 630g dairy food a week, Australian and US dietary guidelines recommend 2-3 serves of dairy products (or equivalent), or 500-750g a day of dairy milk.

One serve of dairy is:

1 cup of milk or fortified soy milk; or

40g cheese;

200g yoghurt;

100g almonds;

100g firm tofu with calcium

The dairy food group is a good source of many nutrients including calcium, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. While you could meet these dietary requirements using only plant-based foods it is more difficult and you’ll probably need supplements or fortified foods. For example, calcium is available in foods such as almonds, however you would need to eat more than 3 handfuls of almonds (100g) to get just 1 serve of dairy alternatives. If you choose plant-based ‘milks’, choose one with added calcium.

Why is there conflicting advice?

Greenpeace’s advice to consume no more than 300g of meat and 630g dairy products per week appears to conflict with both Australian and US national dietary guidelines, although it doesn’t have to if we chose more plant-based alternatives within the meat and dairy food groups. As Greenpeace correctly points out, you can meet your nutritional requirements with a vegetarian diet or vegan diet supplemented with Vitamin B12. However, there are still lingering nutrition questions we need to answer. For example, which groups (pregnant women, children, athletes, young women, teens?) are likely to experience nutritional shortfalls if meat and dairy are removed or limited from diets? How do we ensure those with higher needs have them met in an animal-food constrained world? If we are to solve the dilemma of animal foods, we need collaboration between environmental scientists and nutrition scientists and dietitians to ensure advice is evidence-based, and our sustainable diets are enjoyable.

The animal food dilemma in a nutshell:

  • Eating less meat reduces your environmental footprint, but you still need to meet your nutritional needs - include healthy plant-based meat and dairy alternatives such as nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified plant ‘milks’ and tofu.
  • If you eat meat make it a side show rather than the main attraction on your plate – fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with grains (or starchy vegetables) and limit meat to a quarter of your plate.
  • Replace some of your meat with plant proteins. For example, try adding lentils to your spaghetti Bolognese, burgers, meatloaf or casseroles; and adding chickpeas, tofu or nuts to curries, soups and salads.

08 Aug 2018

Should you go vegan?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Vegan diets are often perceived as being a healthier, more ethical and more sustainable way to feed our growing global population. But do vegan diets really deserve their health halo?

Vegan diets typically exclude animal derived ingredients (e.g. meat, dairy products, eggs and gelatine) and foods produced using animal labour, such as honey. Vegans eat grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.  According to Google Trends, searches for the term ‘vegan’ have almost tripled over the past 5 years worldwide.  Despite the fact that ‘going vegan’ is going viral, veganism is not new. The Indian religion of Jainism is centred on non-violence and has been practicing veganism since ancient times. Some Jains even avoid eating potatoes as uprooting them kills the plant along with any microorganisms living on it.

Dr. David Jenkins, the nutrition scientist who introduced the world to the glycaemic index and friend of GI News, says his reasons for adopting a vegan diet are nutritional, environmental and humanitarian.

Are vegan diets healthier?

In an article for the Globe and Mail about Dr David Jenkins conversion to veganism, Leslie Beck claims that “plant-based eaters are thinner and have lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and lower cancer rates – especially colorectal cancer.” But this is plant-based and not plant-only diets – there isn’t much long term research on health outcomes of people following vegan diets. The fact plant-based diets are healthier might not be that surprising as veggies are well known to be great for your health; they are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals and low in kilojoules (calories).  However, we can’t ignore that meat, eggs and dairy provide essential nutrients not naturally present in plants such as vitamin B12, vitamin D and long chain omega-3 fats (although mushrooms are fungi and not plants they contain small amounts of B12 and can contain vitamin D if they are exposed to sunlight). While you can find some of these nutrients added to plant-based foods, you must look a bit harder to find them. Or take supplements.  There are risks of missing out on these nutrients and a vegan diet is not necessarily a healthier diet – it all depends what foods you choose and the overall balance of foods. French fries, fake meats (meat analogues), veggie chips, vegan desserts are plant-based but they can also be highly processed and high in saturated fat salt, fat and additives. There are lessons to learn from our vegan friends: eat more legumes, wholegrain cereals, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, which are all healthy options for everyone.

Is veganism the most sustainable diet?

You might think veganism is the most sustainable way to feed our growing global population and vegan activists certainly promote this as a reason to follow them into a plant-only lifestyle.  They have a point. Meat has the greatest environmental footprint, followed by dairy and then plant-foods.  This is because livestock farming requires more land and water; and animals produce more GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions compared to plant-based foods.  However what may surprise you is that veganism doesn’t appear to be the most sustainable dietary pattern because it doesn’t utilise all types of land. Some less fertile land is not suitable for growing fruits and vegetables but can be used for livestock such as dairy cattle. According to a recent analysis the most sustainable eating pattern is (drum roll please) a vegetarian diet including dairy products (a lacto-vegetarian diet).

Another study found some vegan diets have higher environmental impacts than some omnivore diets. Eating locally and eliminating food wastage play a big role in sustainability too.  For example, a locally raised free-range egg has a smaller environmental footprint than an avocado that has been flown halfway across the globe and then thrown in the bin because it went brown in the bottom of your fruit bowl.

Why vegan?

  • Animal welfare: There are no cruelty issues with plants.
  • Environment: Plant-based diets have the advantage, but it’s complicated Reduce your impact by eating mostly plants, locally sourced, and don’t waste food.
  • Nutrition: for good health, eat mostly plants and just enough animal food to meet your nutrient requirements. Vegans need to eat fortified foods or take supplements to meet their needs for hard-to-get nutrients.

06 Jun 2018

Low energy living

Posted by Nicole Senior on Wednesday, June 06, 2018

We use a lot of energy in our everyday lives. Cast your mind back to the last power outage. Did your heart sink as you realised that your mobile battery was at 2%, you couldn’t watch TV or make microwave popcorn and the ice-cream in the fridge melted? The minor and temporary inconvenience of a power outage is the tip of a very large energy iceberg.

Each year the world population is using more and more energy. One way of measuring how much more is Overshoot Day. In 2017, August 2 was Overshoot Day says the Global Footprint Network. What this means is that in just over seven months, we had used up the natural resources such as food and fuel Earth can generate in twelve months. As Overshoot Day moves earlier and earlier each year, we dip more and more into the super fund of natural resources we should be saving for our children’s and their children’s future.

What can we do to make a difference? We can start with adopting some everyday habits that help to reduce our energy use. We don’t necessarily have to go without; but we need to be more aware of the energy we use in our daily lives, be more energy efficient and waste less.

Energy-saving tips

Transport

  • Walk, ride a bike, carpool or take public transport- it saves money and reduces GHG emissions as well as increasing your physical activity.

Shopping

  • Buy healthy whole foods such as oats, brown rice, vegetables, fruit, milk, fresh meat, legumes and eggs, and cut back on (cut out?) highly processed packaged foods that require more energy to produce in the first place and are likely high in salt, saturated fats and highly refined carbohydrates that spike BGLs.
  • Plan your meals and shopping trips to avoid emergency fast food drive-throughs and pizza deliveries.

Cooling and heating

  • Adjust your air-conditioning thermostat to more moderate settings to make it use less energy, such as 18–20 degrees Celsius in winter and 25–27 degrees in summer.
  • Wear more clothes in winter to save on heating (and remember keeping yourself warm uses kilojoules/calories and every little bit helps).
  • Close the door on rooms you’re not using and exclude draughts.

Washing

  • To save energy on water-heating, wash clothes in cold water, only run the dishwasher when its full (and in the middle of the night for off-peak energy pricing), keep showers short and install a water-saving shower head and flow-limiters on your taps.
  • Air-dry clothes rather than use a clothes dryer.

Storage

  • Ensure your fridge is set to the correct temperature – around 3–4 degrees Celsius and get rid of that extra fridge – it’s costing you a lot to run.
  • Don’t open the fridge door too much so it doesn’t have to work as hard to stay cold.

Cooking

  • Use the BBQ outside on hot days - cooking inside heats the house and makes your cooling system work harder.
  • Use your microwave oven or pressure cooker rather than your oven – it is more energy efficient.
  • Defrost frozen foods in the fridge overnight instead of in the microwave to save energy.
  • Use the correct size burner for your saucepan – excess heat wastes energy.
  • If using your oven, think about cooking two things at once to make the most of the energy.

20 Aug 2013

How will sustainable eating assist in combating climate change?

Posted by Nicole Senior on Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Anthropogenic warming is caused mainly by emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (N2O). Agriculture is a main contributor of methane and N2O: in 2005, 60% of N2O and 50% of methane came from agriculture.

From paddock to plate what we eat influences the production of greenhouse gases. Estimates vary as to the proportion of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) that can be apportioned to food. The Australian government says agriculture is responsible for 16 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gases1  and transport, manufacturing, packaging, storage, refrigeration and the disposal of waste food and packaging add to the carbon footprint of the food supply. The Australian Conservation Foundation estimates food to constitute 28.3% of the average household’s GHG pollution2

Animal foods are generally more resource intensive or polluting to produce (and fruit & veg flown on planes). In general, larger animals are less efficient at converting feed to food, and produce more waste (eg methane from manure). Ruminants (eg cattle, sheep) emit most CO2 due to enteric fermentation so beef, milk, lamb are high GHG foods. Pork, poultry and kangaroo are more efficient and have lower GHG emissions than beef. Fresh vegetables, cereals and legumes have the lowest emissions. Like many issues within the food and environment sphere, we have to strike a balance between the nutrients we need and the environmental costs of producing them. While some may advocate eliminating meat from the diet, this is not realistic (or enjoyable to many) solution. A more achievable way to reduce GHG emissions and optimize nutrition is to reduce the amount of red meat we eat and focus on improving sustainability of meat production.

The more a food is processed, the higher it’s carbon footprint. Artificial additives and packaging increase the energy input required, but of course these help to improve food safety and reduce food waste so a balance must be struck between eating fresh and processed foods. Eating fresh, local and seasonal requires less transport and storage.

Every kilogram of food waste added to landfill generates the equivalent of a kilogram of greenhouse gases3 so reducing the amount of food we waste is an effective way to reduce our environmental footprint.

Sustainable eating is not simple but we could go a long way by maximising our nutritional bang for our environmental buck by choosing nutrient rich foods, reducing highly processed treats and minimising food waste.

National Greenhouse Accounts. Department of Climate Change. Australian Government, available at http://www.climatechange.gov.au/agriculture/ (Accessed 21/7/2009).

Consuming Australia: Main Findings © 2007, Australian Conservation Foundation, www.acfonline.org.au

Food, garden, packaging and materials. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, Australian Government, available at http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/gwci/food.html (Accessed 22/7/2009).