Forget meat and dairy, we need to shift proteins

How do you feel about eating invertebrates such as nutritious insects?

Think protein and what comes to mind? Meat, milk or fish? An irreplaceable part of any diet, protein takes gold in many other foods as well: foods that may have to become staples of the western diet in the coming years.

Simply put, how we’ve produced and consumed protein over at least the past half century has had some catastrophic social, environmental and economic impacts around the globe, and a hard rain is gonna fall.

While carbohydrates fuel the engine room of energy production, protein allows for the growth, maintenance and repair of our muscle and body tissue. Protein sources vary in their ability to provide us with the essential amino acids we need: while animal sources provide the full range of essential amino acids, some plants, such as soy and quinoa, do too.

Almost by default, protein is more visible on the dietary podium than ever before through the popular low-carb fad diets of recent decades. Yet most people get plenty of protein through a varied and balanced diet, while fad diets are called "fads" for a reason. According to the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, when it comes to weight loss over a 12-month period for low- carb diets such as the Atkins, Zone or Scarsdale diet, evidence shows there is little difference between such diets and a general low-calorie diet.

By 2050 global demand for protein on our dinner plates is expected to increase by 80 per cent over current levels, with Asia and Africa strongly pushing the appetite for protein. But where will it come from?

Plant proteins such as pulses, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and grains offer great hope, as well as alternatives such as microalgae, bacteria or mycoprotein. And we can’t rule out former science-fiction alternatives for our dinner plates, such as synthetic or cultured meat.

Meat, milk and fish may be fine for most of us, but how do you feel about invertebrates such as protein-packed insects?

As the protein perils of the 21st century unfurl before the western consumer, our diets will be governed more by need than want; namely, how can we shift our dependence on energy- and resource-intensive animal-sourced proteins to more marine and plant-based sources needed not just for own health, but in order to feed an additional two billion people by 2050.

Seafood

“Many people are comfortable with animal-sourced proteins, but less so with plants or seafood,” says consultant dietitian

Orla Walsh

, who works from her Dublin clinic with clients such as Athletics Ireland and the Irish Institute of Sport.

“Without changing people’s mindsets it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to morph people’s diets. It’s often not a case of they just don’t like something, but that they might not even know a certain food exists in the first place, or not know where to purchase it or how to cook it.

“For instance, beans, peas and lentils. Some people think they have to steep them over night and then cook them for a long time, but some lentils are very quick to cook. Many beans, peas and lentils now [come in] a tin,” says Walsh.

“And though we’ve been trying to get people to eat more fish for years, many people are still very reluctant.”

While she is doubtful people in Ireland, at least, will be eating cockroaches in any form by mid-century, Walsh says she has noticed people over the past decade becoming more open-minded and interested in foods they had never tried before.

Fight against obesity

She cites “huge health advantages” for a more plant-based, Mediterranean style of eating. “If people ate more beans, peas and lentils, they’d probably have lower cholesterol and have less constipation. There would be a reduced risk of breast cancer and colon cancer, and it would help control blood sugar levels and the fight against obesity.” In addition, eating oily fish provides omega 3, which is “excellent for your heart and bones and helps reduce the risk of certain cancers. It’s also important in brain development and can even help proteins stimulate the muscles to help prevent muscle loss and ageing.”

Fish is also one of the few food sources that contain vitamin D, says Walsh, which helps your bones and immune system. Furthermore, it is a source of “incredibly important” zinc, iodine and selenium.

Regardless of the ethics or sustainability of mass meat production, there is an undeniable, long-standing dietary value in its consumption. Aside from its gift of protein, it’s an important source of essential nutrients, including iron, B vitamins, zinc and vitamin A.

Meat has been centre stage in the dietary evolution of humans, with some scientists attesting that it played a pivotal part in the development of our ancestors’ larger brains about two million years ago.

Qualities

However, we know it’s not all good – meat comes in so many forms and sources – from a dripping, fatty steak to lean chicken breast.

According to a 2014 discussion paper by the Oxford-based Food Climate Research Network, “the problem is compounded by the difficulty of adjusting for confounding factors, including foods that we eat alongside meat, and the different lifestyles of meat and non-meat eaters.”

The paper noted that vegetarianism in high-income countries is a “lifestyle choice and not a necessity. And on the whole, it is a choice made by people who are more educated, more health conscious, and less likely to smoke, drink too much, or be physically inactive than meat eaters.”

According to Walsh, research shows time and again that a vegetarian diet is healthy. “It is linked to lower blood pressure, lower amounts of type 2 diabetes, lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates,” she says.

Sarah Keogh, a consultant dietitian in Dublin's Albany Clinic, thinks we are still very reliant on red meat and chicken.

“Irish people do seem more aware of the benefits of plant-based protein, but there is still very little shift on that.”

Keogh says our meat-based diet largely stems from culture, rather than education or purchasing power.

“Your eating habits are largely established by the age of three. So although there may be shifts, most people eat the way they did as a child.

“It’s to do with tradition and culture, more so than awareness or education, and you will see this across the board when it comes to nutrition and what eating habits were established at quite a young age.”

Texture and familiarity play a significant role too: Keogh says it takes 16 tries of a new food before it becomes familiar and acceptable, but many people are simply not willing to make that investment.

She also stresses that some animal proteins are hard to find in plants.

“B vitamins are not available in most plant proteins. Seaweed is the only plant-protein that offers B12, and only particular varieties of it. So if we were to entirely drop animal proteins, that could be an issue.

“A lot of people might change for environmental reasons too, but how we market protein-sources in the decades to come will make a difference.”

Next week: Time for a protein facelift