Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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  • Sustainable Development

Plant-based diet as healthy substitute for red meat 15 Oct 2019

Vegetable and whole grain meal

In Nigeria, the amount of meat in one's plate of food can denote a person's affluence or the lack thereof. When someone walks into a restaurant and needs to show off a little, or if a person really wants to impress a guest, such a person would make sure the quantity of meat ordered or served at the table is a lot. It can even be disproportionate to the main dish.
In fact, if you decide to entertain your guests with a lot of vegetables and fruits, instead of meat, they may never come back. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find the oldest person during communal dining to be served the largest amount of meat.   

In the western part of Nigeria where I come from, extended family members hardly appreciate a meal that is not accompanied with 'rich soup' – colloquially meaning a meal that is well-endowed with a large portion of meat, usually red meat. The host is often labelled stingy and unwelcoming if the relatives' 'rich soup' expectation is not met.

This strong appetite for lots of meat is also a common practice in other tribes and cultural settings in many other parts of the world. But such primordial idea of what our plate should look like is an unhealthy way of feeding that must change.  

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (AMA) found that people who consume more protein from plants and less red meat tend to live longer. Red meat refers to meat that comes from a mammal. It is usually red when it is raw. Examples include lamb, beef and pork.

Processed meat, which refers to meat that has undergone a number of treatments after the animal has been slaughtered, is also unhealthy. Examples are bacon, sausages, corned beef, ham, hot dogs, canned meat and meat-based sauces. Meat processing includes salting, curing, and smoking. Nitrates, preservatives, and other substances are used in treating a lot of meat to improve shelf life, taste and flavour.

According to Dr. Sawada Norie, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Centre in Tokyo and co-author of the study, replacing red or processed meat with plant-based protein foods can reduce the risks of dying from cancer and heart diseases. The result of the 18-year-long research confirmed that people who consumed the most amounts of plant-based protein had a 13 per cent lower overall death rate than those who consumed the least.

Another study recently published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) by Professor Yan Zheng and his colleagues at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, examined whether changes in red meat consumption among a group of people from 1986 to 1994 correlated with death risk in the following eight years, 1994 to 2002. It also examined whether changes in the intake of red meat between 1994 and 2002 correlated with mortality risk between 2002 and 2010.

Results from the BMJ study revealed that those who increased their daily consumption of processed meat by half a serving or more were 13 per cent at risk of death from any cause. Those who increased the intake of unprocessed meat by the same amount daily had a 9 per cent rise in mortality risk. The reverse was, however, the case when the intake of red meat was lowered and substituted with more nuts, fish, skinless poultry, wholegrain and/or vegetables over the same eight-year period.

The question that comes to mind from the foregoing is: Why is it so dangerous to consume a lot of processed or red meat?

Here's why.

Red meat has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This means red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans. The word 'probably' is used because there is positive evidence that associates red meat consumption with the development of a particular cancer type – namely colorectal cancer. However, such evidence is limited because other explanations for the disease could not be ruled out.

The WHO classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is because there is sufficient evidence supporting the development of colorectal cancer in humans who consume processed meat. Apart from colorectal cancer, other types of cancer that have been linked to the consumption of red meat are pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. Stomach cancer has also been linked to the consumption of processed meat, though the evidence is inconclusive.

But there is more evidence in supporting the harmful effects of meat consumption. A report recently published in The Lancet for the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, titled "Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017," found that 22 per cent of deaths worldwide can be associated with diet. The research, which focused on 15 types of food, covered diets low in fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, fibre, milk, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids from sea foods, as well as polyunsaturated fats. The study also covered diets high in trans fats, red meat, processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium.

As clearly stated by GBD, the global consumption of healthy food items was found to have less than the optimal amounts of almost all the healthy food items covered by the study. And the highest deficiency in global food consumption was nuts and seeds, milk and wholegrains. Unfortunately, people consumed more of unhealthy foods. As a result, the optimal level for the consumption of unhealthy foods was exceeded globally. Little wonder 11 million deaths were attributed to dietary risk factors in 2017 alone, majorly from cardiovascular diseases (10 million deaths), followed by cancer and type 2 diabetes.  

The surest way to correct the health problems caused by diet is through diet itself. The solution to the deadly harm that is promoted by unhealthy foods, including processed and red meat as I have mentioned above, is to substitute them with plant-based foods. Shifting from an unhealthy dependence on mammalian meat for our protein to plants can go a long way in keeping us healthy and limiting our susceptibility to certain life-threatening diseases.

Plant-based proteins are also rich in fibre and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are the good fats that can help reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart diseases. To be sure, eating animal protein or unprocessed meat is not entirely bad. One perk of eating meat is that it packs in more protein per serving. However, most times, people consume more meat than the body requires.

Lentils, beans, soy beans, peas and seeds offer a full protein package and are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In fact, half a cup of cooked legumes contains as much as 8-9 grammes of protein per serving. Also, peanut butter contains 7g of protein in every two tablespoons, in addition to other key nutrients.

Apart from protein, our diet needs to be rich in other nutrients, too. Wholegrains for example are rich in iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin B and dietary fibre. According to GBD, the leading dietary risk factor for deaths in Nigeria, the United States of America, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt, Germany, Iran and Turkey in 2017 was wholegrain-deficient diet. Examples of wholegrain foods are whole oats, whole wheat, millet, barley, brown rice, corn, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, among others.

In recent months, meat-mimicking substitutes have gained traction in some countries. For instance, Beyond Meat, is a Los Angeles-based company that   produces plant-based meat substitutes. The company produces Beyond Burger, a burger that is made to emulate the texture, taste and appearance of real meat. A similar product is Impossible Burger, produced by Impossible Foods, also an American company that produces meat alternatives from plants. However, these are processed foods that have their downsides. They contain saturated fats.

As the world explores alternatives to meat using plant-based sources, such alternatives must eliminate other elements that may as well pose health risks to consumers. Overall, the consumption of plant-based protein foods has other benefits apart from rescuing us from the need to consume processed and red meat as a source of protein.

When followed consistently, a vegetarian diet can help with weight loss for individuals and also protect the environment. By limiting the release of heat-trapping gases such as methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, the consumption of less meat can also help to reduce the effect of climate change.

In as much as an attractive and sumptuously-looking plate is desirable, we must make healthy eating a habit. Remember that an additional piece of red or processed meat could increase your risk of having a life-threatening disease condition that may have never shown up if you had been more health-conscious with your food choices.