Eating less beef, more plants can be a gradual change, experts say

TORONTO — New recommendations urging a drastic reduction in the amount of meat Canadians eat would require support from industry and government to achieve, say nutrition and food experts who suggest individuals start by making small changes in their diet.

A report by the Stockholm-based non-profit EAT says people should be eating much fewer eggs, meat and fish and next to no sugar.

The study, published Wednesday by the medical journal Lancet, represents a big shift that could be hard for many Canadians to stomach: it recommends about 100 grams of red meat per week when Canadians on average eat about 90 grams per day, says University of Guelph nutrition professor Jess Haines.

The report also recommends 50 grams of pulses per day, when only 13 per cent of Canadians regularly eat such foods, which include beans, peas and lentils.

“We certainly can’t expect the consumer to just take these drastic shifts in intake without support, and I think that would mean we need investment from governments at various levels to make this happen,” says Haines, noting EAT urges adoption by 2050 in order to feed a growing global population and address ecological pressures.

That could include making such foods the norm at schools, childcare centres, long-term care homes and restaurants. Haines says industry should pursue innovations in developing meat substitutes and calls on government to offer subsidies to encourage production of particular kinds of vegetables, and offset costs that prevent one in eight Canadians from affording a healthy diet.

Education is key, as well, she says, suggesting that cooking classes be mandatory in schools.

“Given that we don’t typically eat a lot of those pulses, it’s likely that many people aren’t that familiar with recipes on how to prepare those.”

The study limits red meat to a hamburger a week, while eggs are capped at four a week. Dairy foods should be about a serving a day, or less. Meanwhile, it encourages whole grains, beans, fruits and most vegetables, and says people should limit refined grains such as white rice and starches including potatoes and cassava.

Montreal chef David McMillan says he believes many Canadians are already moving towards this model, and that the restaurant industry is responding.

“We’re seeing a lot more whole-grain eating, lentil, vegetable soups are selling like mad, sandwiches composed of mostly vegetables are selling easily,” says McMillan, whose Quebec eateries include the venerable Joe Beef, McKiernan Luncheonette and the veggie-heavy Le Vin Papillon.

“Large salads are back. Not because we’re deciding that but because the customer is asking for it and we’re accommodating them. We can see that we can get away ultimately now with cutting a very thin steak as opposed to having a giant steak before.”

Still, McMillan said it’s hard for the home cook to pivot with evolving dietary advice. He pointed to the layout of most large grocery stores as being part of the problem by setting up distinct zones for produce, baked goods, meat and dairy.

“When you’re separating all of these things, we’re not creating combinations for people to make it easier for them to do their groceries. That’s why all these meal plan companies are having actual success when they’re shipping you a bag and in the bag there’s a carrot, an onion, a celery, one pound of hamburger steak and a can of red kidney beans and a card that says: Brown meat, add onion, carrot, celery, kidney beans, tomato paste, now you have chili,” he says.

“How are we teaching people to cook for themselves? …We don’t necessarily know how to cook as a people. I’m astounded at how little the kids are (taught). Not teaching cooking in schools is ridiculous”

Haines suggests individuals take small steps towards increasing plant-based proteins, noting people are more likely to stick with new ideas that way.

“Do you normally have a meat pasta sauce? Could you cut the meat in half and also add some beans to that?” she suggests.

“And then gradually you can make it more and more beans and next thing you know everyone in the family is used to eating more of those beans.”

Lenore Newman, Canada research chair in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, says people may also have more success by shifting their view on animal protein as something to be reserved for the occasional meal, rather than viewing it as a staple.

“In Alberta, I’m sure people are going to keep eating steaks for quite a while yet. But they might be looking at it and saying, ‘Well, maybe not everyday. Maybe not quite as often, maybe more as a special occasion,’” says Newman, the Vancouver-based author of “Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey.”

“Day-to-day, people aren’t going to eat an East Coast lobster or a West Coast salmon. They’re not doing that every day. So in their daily food, which of course is the bulk of it, they’re much more likely to follow trends they think might improve their health, improve the environment or save them money.”

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