Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

4 Comments

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Ever since the new Food Guide consultations began the dairy and beef industries have been pushing back hard. They’re afraid that if the traditional food groups are dismantled, and if the food guide encourages people to consume more plant-based sources of protein, as has been put forward in the consultation, that there will be decreased consumption of dairy and beef. It’s understandable that they would want to protect their interests. After all, going from being featured prominently in the current (and previous versions) of the Food Guide with food groups named: Milk and alternatives and Meat and alternatives, to receiving little-to-no mention is a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s a hugely positive step for the health and wellness of Canadians.

You see, words matter. “Alternative” is generally different than the norm. According to the dictionary, the definition of alternative is, “one of two or more available possibilities.” By naming food groups “Meat and Alternatives” and “Milk and Alternatives” we’ve positioned animal products as the norm and plant-based sources of similar nutrients as differing from the norm or abnormal. This positioning makes it sound like meat and milk are the front-runners and the “alternatives” runners up. This does a disservice to the health and budgets of many Canadians, particularly those living on low incomes, as meat is positioned as something to aspire to and the “alternatives” (which are often more affordable options such as beans, lentils, and tofu) as inferior.

I think that the standard Canadian home-cooked meal is often some variation on meat and potatoes. Having taught cooking classes for people living on low incomes for the past few years I have found that even if participants are open to trying new foods and recipes they are often unable to sell their family members on beans and lentils and other more affordable sources of protein. One of the few negative pieces of feedback we receive is that participants would like more meat in the meals we prepare. For many reasons we emphasize vegetables and “alternative” sources of protein in our classes. Among those reasons are: nutrition, food safety, variety, and affordability. Meat is generally one of the more expensive foods at the grocery store. By creating the impression that meals centred around meat are something to aspire to we’ve really done a disservice to Canadians. The majority of us don’t consume even the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruit each day and don’t consume enough fibre.

Milk is widely encouraged as a beverage with meals, on cereal, with snacks, and for sports recovery. It’s been positioned as the beverage for growing children and for seniors for bone health. While not quite as costly as meat, serving for serving, it’s still a pricey beverage in comparison to water and many other drinks. Setting aside vitamin D, which milk is fortified with, there are many other sources of the nutrients we commonly consume milk to obtain. Calcium is found in many leafy green vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Protein is found in beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

All this to say, that despite the push-back, I think that (if Canadians pay attention to the new Food Guide when it’s released) ditching the current configuration of food groups, or even just the current naming of food groups, will be beneficial to the health and pocketbooks of most of us. If we stop seeing plant-based sources of protein as “alternative” and start recognizing them for their delicious value then maybe we can get out of that meat and potatoes mentality and start enjoying a wider variety of nutritious meals.

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

4 thoughts on “Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

  1. Yes! It’d be nice if Health Canada considered this message as they prepare the new food guide. Personally, learning that meat was optional changed my life, as it introduced me to a simpler, cheaper, and fresher way to cook. Meat is fine, but North Americans thinking you need tons of it at every meal causes a lot of problems.

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  2. Certainly a change of this magnitude will have an impact on the meat and dairy industries and will have some negative consequences. The food guide was/is supposed to help people make healthy choices that guides us to become a healthier population.
    The food guide is not intended to be a marketing piece for any of the food produces, but that is really what it has become and the result is an unhealthy and costly population.
    There is no question that it is an uphill battle to get people to actually cook healthy meals again especially when you remove their starting food groups but the advantages are worth it.

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  3. There will be more positive consequences than negative ones. It takes so much more energy and water to produce a pound of meat, compared with a pound of “equivalent” plant protein, that this is an enormous plus. Farmers and agribusiness will have to adapt just as the rest of us are doing.

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