'Kind' food

Eco eating is a lot easier than you think and makes a whole lot of sense. Thinking ‘kind’ food is a great way to help you and your health at the same time as improving the lives of those with whom we share our world.   

Local seasonal food is all the rage. And it makes perfect sense. Food metres’ not ‘food miles’ is the only real way forward. Why don’t we take more advantage of the great produce that’s literally on our doorstep? Or even grow our own? I never thought I could enjoy dig, dig, digging, but it’s amazingly good for the soul and the biceps. What a result.

Less meat is also great (see below). That could be troubling for meat eaters, but just think about it. Why waste precious land on producing livestock when we could feed ten times more people by feeding ourselves instead with nutritious plant foods?

If you’re about to say that healthy local food is more expensive, you may have to think again.Cutting down on animal products will automatically leave more cash in your wallet, and local markets are a great source of inexpensive, nutritious produce. You can usually beat supermarket prices without even trying. But go on, try.  Send us your comments and suggestions for coping with eco eating on a budget. I bet it’s easier than you think…


Since the news that cows produce enough methane to seriously affect global warming, you’d think vegetarians would be rubbing their hands with glee, “I told you so” written all over their faces. It’s yet another reason to eat less meat – as if battery farming and health scares weren’t already enough to make you think twice about what goes on your plate.

So what’s the truth? Should we all give up meat or is there a way for reluctant carnivores to have a foot in both camps? Let’s look at the facts.

First, whatever your view, many people think giving up meat all together could be a bit of a struggle – currently 96% of households in the UK consume red meat. The global production of meat has risen from 130 million tonnes in the 1970s to 230 million tonnes in the year 2000. Meat is the single largest source of animal protein in all affluent nations and even the Vegetarian Society report that demand for animal flesh is expected to more than double by 2050.

It’s not surprising when you think that meat has always been seen as a prestigious food around which, if you could afford it, you based your meals. With the West’s dose of  ‘affluenza’, eating daily amounts of meat quickly became the norm – especially when intensive meat production made animal products cheaper than ever before. Those neat sanitised packs of meat in supermarkets suddenly made it easier to regard meat almost as a convenience food (you might ask yourself why we buy ‘beef’, not ‘cow’, and ‘pork’, not ‘pig’). The widespread, now ingrained, expectation of ‘meat and two veg’ can be a hard habit to break.

But more of us are moving away from meat every year.  In the UK about 1.2 million people, roughly 2% of the population, are now wholly vegetarian, with a further 7% stating that they are mostly vegetarian, according to the latest figures from the Food Standards Agency.

Now we know more about human nutrition, anatomy and physiology, and plant biology, most people accept that meat is not vital for a healthy life and that there are many other sources for the nutrients we need (see Nutrition knowhow, below).


It seems that every few months there’s something in the news about health scares associated with meat and dairy products. Many people remember the BSE stories and current reports of CJD sufferers, as well as more recent widespread worries of foot and mouth contamination across the UK. Then there are the dangers of E.coli (found in the intestines of cattle and spread by poor hygiene), salmonella poisoning (usually from poultry and eggs), and worries about bird flu affecting UK poultry.

While good animal husbandry and vigilant hygiene may well reduce some of these incidents, there have also been some surveys and reports that could cause concern. Among them are these:

1) Red meat significantly increases the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women…
A study by a team at the University of Leeds, published in the British Journal of Cancer, reports that of the 35.000 women they monitored over seven years, those who ate one portion (57g) of red meat a day had a 56% greater risk of breast cancer than those who ate none, and that those who ate the most processed meat, such as bacon, sausages, ham and pies, the risk of breast cancer was 64% higher than those who refrained. British Journal of Cancer (2007) 96, 1139 – 1146


2) Meat bad for bone health…
Researchers from the University of California in San Francisco have warned that elderly women who get too much protein from animal products such as meat and cheese could risk fractures and bone loss. They report that women can improve their bone health by using vegetables as a greater source of protein. In the study, women who got a high ratio of their protein from meat or dairy products rather than vegetables, had three times the rate of bone loss than those at opposite end of the scale. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 73, No. 1, 118-122



It’s generally considered we need around 35g protein a day – but what are the best sources? Proteins, made up of amino acids, are often broken down into two categories – commonly known as complete and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are mostly found in animal products, such as meat and eggs, but are also in soya. Incomplete proteins, such as the ones we find in most plant foods, are made up of different amino acids. However, over the period of a day, it’s surprisingly easy to combine plant proteins so that overall you get your full quota of complete protein. As well as meat, foods such as eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses, vegetable protein foods and soya products are all good sources of protein, and there are also useful amounts in grains, especially quinoa, and dairy products.

So, while meat eaters may whoop with joy at the convenience of meat for instant protein, it’s clear you don’t actually need to eat meat in order to get the regular protein you need, as long as you have a good balanced diet.

Also interesting is the fact that although many people choose to go vegetarian for health reasons, a meat-free diet doesn’t automatically mean ‘health’. You could, for example, exist solely on chips and chocolate and still be veggie – not a good option for those who care about their health. The moral of the story is that in all good diets, we need to make the right choices to get the balance of nutrients we need.


• You won’t grow big and strong on a vegetarian diet…
Tell that to the elephants, cows, sheep, horses and other herbivores. The proteins we need for growth and strength can also be sourced from plant-based products.

• It’s hard to get enough energy from a meat-free diet…
Maybe if you live on chips and chocolate. But remember that some of our most successful sports people are vegetarian or vegan – athlete Carl Lewis, tennis player Martina Navratilova, body builders Robbie Hazeley and Robert Cheeke, marathon runners Sally Eastall and Fiona Oakes, and many others.

• Vegetarian food is boring and tasteless…
1.2 million UK vegetarians beg to differ. Actor Martin Shaw, a longterm veggie, says: ”I was delighted to find that my new found diet proved to be no sacrifice to my tastebuds at all and in fact was quite the opposite. When you become vegetarian it actually broadens your horizon rather than limits it, as it encourages you to try lots of new foods that you’ve probably never even heard of before!”


• The average Briton eats almost 25kg chicken a year

• More than 850 million broiler chickens are slaughtered every year – 95% of them reared in industrial conditions in vast enclosed sheds holding up to 40,000 birds

• Several leading supermarkets, including Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, reported their sales of organic and free range chicken went up by as much as 50% following the high-profile television campaign by chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall last year.

• The European ban on intensive battery cages for chickens comes into effect in 2012. But birds will still be able to be kept in ‘enriched’ cages, allowing some 750 square centimetres per hen, containing a nest, litter, perch and clawing-board.


Since we’re now well aware of the effects our lifestyle has on our environment, there’s no doubt that producing meat takes a big toll on our natural resources.

• Growing grains, vegetables and fruits uses only 5% as many raw materials as producing meat.

• Land use is hugely important for our future – we could feed 20 vegetarians from the land needed to produce food for one meat eater. Greenpeace advise: “No matter how you look at it, the best environmental choice is to eat low on the food chain. You might feel better for it, too.”

• It’s now known that livestock production is responsible for some 18% of global greenhouse emissions – 4% more than transport. Producing the traditional Sunday roast could result in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving 194 miles from London to Manchester. As it’s estimated that the number of animals farmed for food is set to double from 60 billion to 120 billion a year by 2050, this is obviously a huge concern. We’re already looking at ways to reduce car pollution and air miles to lessen our carbon footprint. Now’s the time to take a closer look at the kind of food we produce, too.

But we need also to be vigilant about the alternatives we choose. There’s little point in destroying the rainforest to produce palm oil and soya beans, so sourcing food products sustainably is vital. Buying local produce from organic suppliers is a good place to start.


According to Greenpeace, Compassion in World Farming and the Soil Association, the best advice is that if you do still choose to eat meat, it’s better to eat it less often and try to make sure what you do buy is organic. Not only does this mean it’s produced sustainably and without chemicals, it also ensures the highest animal welfare standards are followed. This will help to safeguard the health of our animals, our environment and ourselves.

Diet is an important tool in helping us to achieve environmental sustainability. But, as with all things, your own choices must obviously be up to you…


The Soil Association  0117 314 5000 http://www.soilassociation.org

Food Standards Agency http://www.food.gov.uk

Greenpeace  020 7865 8100 http://www.greenpeace.org.uk

Compassion in World Farming  01483 521950 http://www.ciwf.org.uk

The Vegetarian Society  0161 925 2000 http://www.vegsoc.org

Viva!  0117 944 1000 http://www.viva.org.uk