Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pros and Cons of "Living Like a Squirrel in the Forest"

Healthy eating guidelines are confusing enough, but what happens when the lines between nutrition, health and environmental responsibility start to get blurred? We are regularly advised to limit our consumption of red meat for health reasons and opt for more fish and lean meats, but when you start to consider the environmental consequences of increased fish and poultry consumption, the situation becomes far less simple. This is why the environmentally-slanted dietary advice of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is causing some critics to say that the Council wants Australians to live "like squirrels in the forest".

The Council recommends that Australians limit their intakes of beef, dairy, fish, unsaturated margarines and oils like vegetable and olive oils. The trouble is that these recommendations are not actually based on nutrition - they are based on environmental concerns. We know that some of the healthiest foods we can eat are fish and olive oil and that low fat dairy products can help individuals manage their weight as well as obtain nutrients that are essential for optimal health. In addition, beef products in moderation provide iron and, if lean, are an excellent source of protein. If people limit these healthy foods too greatly without knowing how to compensate for the missing nutrients, it is possible to end up with nutritional deficiencies.

In the words of Australian Food and Grocery Council chief executive Kate Carnell, "To indicate to young women that they should eat less red meat when there are already issues (with under-consumption of red meat) ... could end up with worse nutritional outcomes,". On the flip side of the coin, we know that following a vegan diet, which completely eliminates all products derived from animals or their labour, can be perfectly healthy if the appropriate substitutions are made to promote good health.

So unless the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is prepared to give the proper guidance to Australians to help them stay healthy without eating as much beef, dairy or fish, these recommendations may be treading on dangerous territory.