10 Apr For the Love of Food: Remember There Is More To Food Than Nutrition
This post is in collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner., on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a member of the Beef Expert Bureau. I have been compensated for my time commitment. However, my opinions are entirely my own and I have not been paid to publish positive comment
Recently, there has been a lot of hype surrounding sustainable diets and how we are going to nourish a growing global population without negatively impacting the environment we all depend upon. The method of doing so has become controversial amongst a variety of health professionals, especially registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN). A hotly debated report on this topic drew plenty of criticism for its diet recommendations – you may have heard about it. This report was commissioned and published by The Lancet and authored by an international group of 37 scientists.
For the Love of Food!
As with reports that provide strict nutrition guidelines, the first thing that comes to my mind is the lack of connection between food and culture, history, and enjoyment. Who is really going to eat one cheeseburger per month? Forgo a summer steak and chicken barbecue with friends? Or skip out on the fish served Christmas Eve? Food is a part of every culture, religion, and heritage. We enjoy food with friends and look forward to eating special dishes throughout the year. Many of these foods include plants, but also include animal foods like beef, chicken, lamb, fish, eggs, and dairy. Food is more than just nutrients, it is something to be enjoyed and can help people and communities bond.
My colleague and fellow member of the Beef Expert Bureau Keith Ayoob, EdD, RDN Associate Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York told me regarding the prescriptive nature of the report, “Eating style is complex and has influences of culture, tradition, family, community and other factors, not only health or sustainability. This report takes none of these factors into account. As a clinician for over three decades, I always want my patients and clients to be happy with the diet we talk about. This report does not address personal satisfaction as a concern.” Ayoob questions if the authors considered the feelings of consumers as they should. “The report recommendations aim to shift societal norms and ration many nutrient-dense foods.”
Associations Do Not Equal Causality
But it even goes further than the food prescription. The type of data used in the report to make the conclusions is epidemiological research. I turned to Dr. Taylor C. Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN Principal & CEO, Think Healthy Group, Inc. and Adjunct Professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, George Mason University to explain. According to Wallace, “Nutrition epidemiology is great for identifying associations, but it cannot be used to determine causality. There is always a chance for confounding and many people mis-report what they actually consume. Nutrition epidemiology is great for looking at potential relationships between intake and long-term health outcomes (such as mortality and cardiovascular events) since clinical interventions typically don’t have that long of a duration (and the ones that do have patient compliance issues).”
Additional Concerns From A RDN’s Perspective
As a RDN, I think it’s important to keep some things in mind when we are faced with certain issues:
- Single Foods Cannot Cause Death
A section of the report discusses how red meat supposedly leads to many leading causes of death including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. However, a number of factors can contribute to death and disease – not a single food or food group.
Plus, studies do show that eating lean beef, as part of a balanced diet, supports healthy blood pressure and blood lipids. In addition, beef is a leading source of iron, an already under consumed nutrient in the American diet. Research also shows that partially replaced carbs in the diet with protein could be a helpful strategy in preventing hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Further, last year the Beef WISE Study was published where researchers concluded that lean beef is just as effective as other protein choices to help achieve important health goals such as weight loss while maintaining muscle mass and supporting a healthy heart, as part of a healthy lifestyle plan that included exercise.
- Eliminating Food Groups Can Lead to Unintended Consequences
The report says that iron may be difficult to obtain for women, and therefore a supplement is recommended. However, as a RDN I always recommend food first so why recommend a supplement when you have a rich food source of iron available? A cut of cooked fresh meat is considered “lean” when it contains less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams (3½ oz) and per RACC (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed). The RACC for beef is 85 grams (3 oz). In addition to providing about 12% of the recommended daily amount of iron, beef also provides other nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, choline, and riboflavin.
Ayoob reminds us “Much of the world has a diet low in animal foods, but there is malnutrition in much of that very population…The sad thing is that there are foods that could supply these missing nutrients — foods that people currently eat and would like to continue eating, but the recommendations discourage eating a more balanced, diverse, and inclusive diet.”
Iron isn’t the only supplement recommended. Vitamin B-12 which is found primarily in animal foods and calcium found in milk and dairy supplements are also recommended. Beef is a delicious food that provides these, plus many other, essential nutrients.
- Animal Agriculture is an Integral Part of the Food System
When it comes to the sustainability of animal agriculture, there are many inaccuracies that have been reported. You might have heard that cattle production is responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. However, a new study shows that beef production, including the production of animal feed, is responsible for only 3.3% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Furthermore, one study showed that even if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%.
Cattle contribute to the environment in a positive way. Cattle do more than recycle – they upcycle inedible plants into high-quality protein. Cattle generate more protein for the human food supply than would exist without them thanks to their unique digestive system which allows them to convert human-inedible plants into high quality protein. Plus, according to the USDA, more than 40-percent of the land in the U.S. is pasture and rangeland that is too rocky, steep, and/or arid to support cultivated agriculture – but this land can support cattle and protein upcycling.
I have visited many cattle farms, and have seen firsthand how the farmers work diligently to make sure everything on the farm is as sustainable as possible. From using manure for energy to filtering rain water for cattle to ensuring the most well-balanced feed for every stage of the cattle’s life.
Recommendations for a Healthy, Sustainable Diet
“The Commission’s recommendations are a drastic departure from current eating, and even many health recommendations. We know that consumers don’t take well when we tell them what not to eat.” says Wallace. Folks like to know what they should eat and provide healthy options for them. Although Taylor believes that the report’s authors had good intentions, people deserve a scientific approach with inclusive, realistic recommendations.
Recommending a healthy, sustainable diet that provides choice for everyone is not easy. Ayoob says, “There are probably many ways up this mountain.” Some of Ayoob’s recommendations include reducing food waste since about 30% of our food is never eaten and is just discarded. As a RDN who specializes in culinary nutrition, there are several ways I recommend minimizing food waste in your own home including:
- Make a shopping list before heading to the store: This way you don’t end up buying double or triple of food that you already have.
- Use the bones from your meat, poultry, and fish to make stock: There are many good-for-you nutrients in bones which are leached into the water when making a stock.
- Use the stem of herbs to flavor cooking liquids: I add stems from mint, parsley, and dill to the cooking water of couscous or brown rice (and remove them before eating) which helps impart a delicious flavor and adds some nutrition as well.
- Use “use by” dates as guidelines: These dates are set by food manufacturer’s as a guideline as to when the quality (taste) of the food may start to diminish. It does not mean the food is spoiled or will get you sick.
- Meal prep: In my two best-selling cookbooks about meal prepping, The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook and Smart Meal Prep for Beginners I like to reuse the same food for several meals so you end up using everything you buy, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Packing and portioning meals also makes sure that you have just enough food, without having to toss leftovers.