Whether you dabble in a plant-based diet once a year for Veganuary, favour a “flexitarian” approach, or eat some form of meat, fish and dairy daily, it is hard to ignore the simple fact that we should all be eating fewer animal products.
A recent survey found 31 per cent of Britons plan to eat more meat-free products in 2021, and British supermarket shelves are increasingly filled with plant-based alternatives. But we still need to cut down our consumption – and, importantly, we need to vigorously check the quality of the animal products we are choosing to continue eating. That starts with buying locally sourced, high-welfare produce, and making it go further, which is far better for your health.
Buy less and buy better
Eating too much meat has been linked to cancer, heart disease and other diseases. But while plant-based sources like pulses, nuts and tofu provide some protein, animal produce is hard to match for “complete protein”, says nutritionist Amelia Freer. Meat, particularly red meat, also provides “Haem” iron – which has better bioavailability (absorption) than “non-haem” iron in plants – and vitamin B12, which make red blood cells and keep a healthy nervous system.
The key, then, is moderation – a return to the old-fashioned idea that meat is expensive and should be relished. Freer says we should be “conscious consumers”. “Make many more of your meals plant-based and consider meat as a condiment, not always the central component.”
She says we should aim to buy organic (or, even better, regenerative) British meat and dairy, from grass-fed rather than grain-fed animals.
“Research suggests that the fat profile of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef is higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids – important for brain and heart health – and lower in fat overall gram-for-gram.”
At Lyons Hill Farm – a small, regenerative farm in Dorset which specialises in rare British breeds and serves top London restaurants – the Iron Age pigs live wild; their beef is the oldest breed native to the British Isles and is over-matured, giving it better flavour and a healthier fat profile. “What we’re selling has lived its whole life on a natural grass diet,” says Theo Crutcher, of Lyons Hill. “The fat that the animal builds up is a completely different colour, it’s yellow and marbled within the meat.”
“That tastes better but it also has a much lower level of saturated fat than an industrially raised animal.”
Get your game on
British game is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to its low-fat credentials: venison and pheasant are very lean, with significantly less fat than beef or chicken. It’s also in ample supply. Jack Hills, from the Exmoor Game Company, says: “Game hugely lends itself to seasonal eating, but also the environmental benefits – wherever you are in the country there will be someone supplying game, and it will be local.”
The freshest fish
Fish and shellfish are a delicious source of protein, healthy fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. The waters around Britain are rich with a wide variety of species – from Devon crab to Scottish scallops – and in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic’s effects on shopping habits, there’s never been a better time to give the supermarket salmon a break.
Local fishmongers are more likely to have a range of species of fish – so you’ll reduce pressure on overfished species, and ensure your diet is varied and nutritious.
The Marine Conservation Society estimates 90 per cent of fish stocks globally are overexploited, with seafood at risk because of climate change and pollution. Check the MSC website to find out what is currently considered sustainable and shop with a local fishmonger. UK cod stocks are doing badly, for example, but hake, UK haddock and Dover sole from the Bristol Channel are currently considered good sustainable choices.
What’s in your milk?
Almost a quarter of Britons are now said to be drinking non-dairy milks, from imported products such as almond or soy. These are a good alternative for those who do not tolerate dairy, but Freer says they tend to lack the nutritional benefits.
“Few contain much protein (with the exception of soy milk), and may not contain the diversity of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals – especially if they haven’t been fortified appropriately. They also may contain added sugar, salt, emulsifiers or other flavourings.”
Good quality British milk, cheese and yogurt can still play an important role in a healthy, balanced diet, says Freer, offering protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, B vitamins and – in yogurt – probiotics.
Again, choose dairy from British, organic, grass-fed animals where you can. At Hollis Mead Organic Dairy – a farm which produces milk, butter, cream, kefir and yogurt and sells them in vending machines – a lower intervention approach yields more nutritious milk, according to the owner Oliver Hemsley. “Our cows only eat grass. The milk has a different flavour from what you get at a supermarket, where the milk has been homogenised, heavily pasteurised and processed.
“Anything that isn’t mucked about with is inevitably going to be higher in nutrition.”
Read more on the Great British Diet: