SIAL Talks: The paradoxes of nutrition and health – no good or bad

In this week’s look back at our SIAL Talks series we hear from Maia Ingemann Holm, Chief Consultant at the Danish Agriculture and Food Council on the paradoxes of nutrition and health. She asserts that food should not be considered as good or bad, but that all foods are acceptable in the right context

Addressing a SIAL Talks audience in December 2022, Ingemann Holm said that there is no black and white, no single evidence-based superfood, no quick fixes, and no specific “healthy diet or lifestyle.”

She added that our propensity to label foods as good or bad creates echo chambers in cases where we otherwise could stand more united and base discussions on facts more than beliefs, and that these tendencies contribute to confusion among the public.

“This has led us to a place where we are shaming different food choices in isolation due to presumed healthiness, or climate or environmental impact.” With this said, Ingemann Holm outlined the paradoxes in a world of changing diets where the higher goal is to make sustainable healthy diets – the protein paradox, the dairy vs plant-based paradox, the circle of life paradox, and the food waste paradox.

The protein paradox

One nutritional element under contention is the most sustainable source of protein as it is often assumed that plant-based protein is more planet-friendly than animal-based protein. However, as Ingemann-Holm noted, “to obtain enough essential amino acids from plants, you would have to combine two or more plant sources, which takes more knowledge and sometimes more effort to do correctly than eating a steak or drinking a glass of milk.”

Hummus is a great example of the combination of chickpeas and sesame as they give high enough levels of the nine essential amino acids to be of good use for the human body.

Dairy vs plant-based paradox

Another paradox with respect to the way we calculate foodstuffs’ carbon footprint is around dairy milk and non-fortified plant-based alternatives to milk.

In some studies milk has higher emissions than soy or almond and oat drinks when compared kilo to kilo. This picture shifts when protein is thrown into the equation and then milk represents the lowest number of carbon emissions per kilo of protein.

When a number of nutrients are added, the picture shifts even more, and this is a great example of how the nutrient content of foods should be considered along with their carbon footprint. The essence of food production is the generation of nutrients at the lowest planetary cost.

Circle of life paradox

She said that the natural fertilisation of plant-based food is most often sourced from animal production, so that it is difficult to have one without the other. To reduce animal cultivation while increasing plant cultivation will set a high demand for innovation and technology on the farming and agricultural sector throughout the world.

“Eating a plant-based diet most certainly is not impossible, but it becomes more demanding for the individual to cover all necessary nutrients. This too is something we need to be aware of and handle in future healthy diets.”

See the whole talk here

The food waste paradox

In Denmark, according to the speaker, people take food waste very seriously, aiming to waste as little as possible and no more than a third.

“In Denmark we work intensively to reduce the waste of food. A Danish population of 5.7m households waste about 47,000 tonnes per year. That is only the households. This amounts to 46 kilos per capita per year, and in total as a country, food waste adds up to 800,000 tonnes annually. Most of this is generated by fruit and vegetables, which amount to about 41% of the total food waste.”

However, Ingemann Holm said that in some cases this noble striving to reduce waste has inadvertently had a negative effect on human health in cases where certain foods that are toxic in certain states, have not been processed properly.

A complex picture

According to the UN agencies the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation, the definition of a sustainable diet comprises different elements, these include not only human health, but economic vitality, environmental health and cultural acceptability, and also social equity. In other words, the sustainable food production system should supply enough nutrients as a natural prerequisite for human health.

Ingemann Holm said that it should be affordable for everyone to obtain a sustainable diet and to sustain profitable businesses, but that recommendations for a sustainable diet will have absolutely no health enhancing effect if consumers cannot afford to pay for it.

“Plus,” she continued, “sustainable food production has to take place in respect to planetary boundaries and preserve the earth’s environmental health to support global planetary health.”

Ingemann Holm said we need to find the most reasonable way to insure the different production set areas were most efficient in terms of climate and environment. And in terms of what is culturally acceptable.

For example, insects can provide a great source of protein, but are only culturally acceptable as a food source in certain parts of the world. In the western world, they are unacceptable and unlikely to catch on.

She went on to say that the complexity of human nutrition is not fully understood, and we have to make assumptions based on what we know. She added that we also don’t fully understand the impact of our food systems on planetary health.

“We have not yet fully understood and may never fully understand the healthiness of the healthiest combination of foodstuffs, as we as individuals have different prerequisites and needs for nutrition.”

“Where we stand today, assumptions about extensions of the effect on the planet’s health of changing diets and eventually shifting food production are so great that rolling calculations could solely be mistaken in either direction.”

Action is needed

On the solutions to these issues, the consultant said we need to take action, based on the best knowledge available, and see where those actions lead us. She said that this would include “a lot of assumptions” but that doing nothing is not an option.

“This also means we have to be ready to reevaluate very often to redefine the assumptions made previously. So I would say the best health guidance for everyone is balance is everything. Balance various foods to balance the intake of nutrients and energy and thereby balance the comfortable weight of the body.”

She claimed the optimal diet is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that we are now facing potential shifts in dietary guidelines where we need to find new balances that take both human health, the planet’s health, cultural acceptability, and affordability into account.

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