Oh HEY JANUARY. Have you come across an article in the newspapers or online promoting ‘The January Detox‘ yet? I hope not, but the likelihood is that you have, whether in broadsheet or social media. SIGH. As you can tell, I’m not a fan. Detox is not a word I use as a doctor, unless it’s to describe to a patient the (natural) function of your hard-working liver and kidneys. But unfortunately, every January, it becomes the word of the movement, as gym membership sign-ups go through the roof, everyone sets their New Year’s Resolutions to ‘get healthy’, and by February, gyms are empty again and many people are just frustrated if they haven’t made those healthy lifestyle intentions a habit.
Note: I have recorded a Podcast episode based on this topic too, and shared it this week, which you can listen to right here!
And so here’s the kicker. I want you to join me, in rejecting the January ‘detox’ mentality. Because guess what ‘detox’ isn’t? Among many things, it ISN’T sustainable. In this article, I’m going to share with you some really simple tips for healthy eating for 2019 that are sustainable, both for your health and that of the environment.
I wrote an article on my blog in November about sustainable dietary habits, which you can check out here for a little background reading. But in a nut shell, the way our current food systems (in both developed and developing countries) feed the planet isn’t cutting it right now. Worldwide, we have approximately 2 billion people overweight, and 2 billion malnourished. And globally we majorly over-consume animal protein, chiefly via meat and dairy intake, which, via livestock, does contribute a big proportion of human-derived greenhouse gas emissions, driving climate change. As part of one of my Masters assignments, I wrote an essay on this topic, exploring the impact our current dietary patterns in Westernised societies on the environment, and I found it such a fascinating and important area. For a second assignment, a presentation, a group of us got together and presented a debate on this issue to our class, discussing the pros and cons of meat-eating compared to vegetarian and vegan-ism, which concluded with some evidence-based key take-home points for our audiences. We gave these points catchy names, which you’ll see below! I encourage you to have a read of my first post here before you dive in below! These points are my sustainable eating tips for your New Year. Simple changes you can easily make to your diet to help the environment a little, and your health too. These changes DON’T involve exclusion of any food groups, because that’s not what I’m about. There are a wide range of important nutrients we get from meat and dairy (I’ve included these below!), so it’s essential to bear that mind when we talk about making any dietary swaps or changes. Let’s get to it!
Note: The British Dietetic Association (BDA) have been very forward thinking and proactive in the sustainable eating arena, and I’ve referenced them quite a bit below as they really are leading the way in the U.K. as a professional body in this area of nutrition.
Meat As A Treat
While I’m not a fan of labelling foods as ‘treats’ or classifying foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we came up with this catchy ‘meat as a treat’ slogan for our college presentation and I wanted to use it here. Because when you have something you see as ‘a treat’, whether it’s a chocolate bar or meat, you tend to appreciate the times when you DO eat it more, as opposed to taking it for granted if consumed everyday. As I said above, globally we do overconsume animal protein (via meat and dairy), and from a sustainability point of view, there is definitely value in cutting down our meat intake in favour of plant-based protein alternatives.
Red meat has received a lot of media attention following the classification in 2015 by WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of red meat as a Group 2A ‘Probable Carcinogen’, while processed meat was given a Group 1 classification as a carcinogen to humans (IARC, 2015). Both classifications were based on epidemiological evidence which found associations with colorectal cancer – limited in the case of red meat, and sufficient in the case of processed meat. In Ireland, the Irish Cancer Society (2015) recommends reducing cooked red meat intake to less than 500g per week, while the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in the UK recommends those who consume 90g of red or processed meat a day should reduce intake to 70g per day (BDA, 2017). Broadly speaking, with meat, I think we have to remember that we don’t need to eliminate it to help the environment, but reducing our intake, not over-consuming it and not making it the focus of our diet, as done with the plant-based approach, is a great route to take right now. My dietitian friend Catherine Downey and I wrote a blog post last year about simple plant-based swaps and changes you can make around meat, as well as providing information in the post on portion sizes – check that out right here.
Varying Your Dairy
Current recommendations are to consume up to 3 servings of dairy per day (Healthy Ireland, 2016), and low fat where possible. Although dairy has been getting a bit of a bashing in terms of the carbon footprint from cattle, dairy remains a major source of macro- and micro-nutrients for many people (particularly those of lower socio-economic status) and is associated with a wide range of health benefits – for example, it’s a major source for many people of protein, calcium and vitamin D. The BDA currently advises ‘moderation’ of dairy intake for sustainability – so again, not over-consuming it. Importantly, if you choose to consume dairy alternatives – for example, many young women are now taking milk alternatives like almond, soy and oat milk – make sure you’re buying brands that are fortified with calcium.
Power Up With Plants
There are many fantastic and very nutritious choices for plant-derived protein, and often these foods are great sources of fibre and other micro-nutrients too. Examples include beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, products like tofu, tempeh and even Quorn! There are MANY ‘meat alternative’ products on the market now, with many supermarkets now doing their ‘own brand’ versions of these too – examples include every kind of vegetarian burger and sausage out there! The BDA encourages us to increase our intake of these foods and particularly the more natural, less processed options (e.g. beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds), and happily most of them can be great options as substitutes for meat or going ‘half and half’ in a recipe – like a vegetarian chili using kidney beans, or a lentil bolognaise!
Five A Day – Everyday
The messages are simple here – 5 a day minimum, with more of your intake coming from vegetables. Importantly, for the best effect on the environment, we should aim to buy seasonal produce where possible, and ideally go for loose fruit and vegetables, minimising the plastic packaging with our buys. Fruits and veg are amazing sources of natural sugars, fibre and lots of micro-nutrients – nutritional powerhouses! Approximately one third of all food produced ends up being food WASTE, and that is just absolutely shocking as a statistic and largely preventable too from us working to be the most responsible consumers we can, especially with perishable foods like fresh fruit and veg.
What About Whole-grains?
Again, a simple message – choose brown over white varieties of foods like bread, rice and pasta, as these have greater fibre content and contribute to the satiety of a meal. Whole-grains consumption have been widely linked to improve heart, gut and metabolic health, and current recommendations (in Ireland) are to have 3-5 servings per day. The science is VERY solid on whole-grains and their beneficial effect on our health, so do NOT fall into the ‘carbs are bad’ trap you see across many website and occasional media (misreported usually) headlines. Complex carbohydrates are an incredibly important food group, and contribute a major source of our daily fibre intake.
A Final Note on Fish
Image Copyright: US Mediahouse
Current recommendations here and in the U.K. are to consume up to two portions of fish per week (Healthy Ireland, 2016), one of which should be oily fish, which is an important source of omega-3 fatty acids. The BDA highlights the importance of ensuring the fish we buy are from quality sources of credible sustainable standards – usually this is recognised from the label on the product, and in the image above you can see the examples of those labels, and in the image below! MSC = the U.K. Marine Conservation Society.
See? Nothing radical. Nothing ‘detoxifying’ – not needed. Healthy, wholesome foods that benefit both human health and that of the environment.
In 2015, the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report concluded ‘consistent evidence indicates that in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (GHG and energy, land and water use) than is the current average US diet. A diet more environmentally sustainable than the average US diet can be achieved without excluding any food groups’ (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2015). Key point – ‘more environmentally sustainable than the average.’ Nothing radical. Just simply eating more in line with the healthy diet guidelines already in place could and would do wonders for our environment – and our physical and mental health. Yep, and that of future generations too – your kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, all of the above.
The ‘Plates, Pyramids, Planets’ report by the FAO and the Food Climate Research Network (Fischer and Garnett, 2016) described the characteristics of diets of low environmental impact consistent with good health, which I’ve listed below just to really hammer home the point that changes we can make aren’t complicated. In fact, they are sustainble, accessible, acceptable and feasible. Here’s what the FAO and FCRN included in these characteristics:
- Diversity of food intake
- The achievement of energy balance between intake and needs
- A diet based on minimally processed tubers, whole-grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables
- The moderation of meat and dairy intake
- Consumption of oils and fats with a beneficial omega 3:6 ratio
- Eating small quantities of fish sourced from certified fisheries
- Very limited intake of high fat/salt/sugar foods
And so, I will leave you with that! I would love to hear your thoughts guys – leave a comment, pop me a DM, or send an email, and let’s get sustainable together! I would LOVE to get a hashtag going for this – if you’re sharing your sustainable swaps on social media, use the hashtag #mysustainableswap and tag me! I’m @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!
Ciara 🙂 x