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Rethinking, Disrupting and Transforming the Way We Eat

The majority of us probably don’t think of our food choices as a matter of urgency, but a growing number of public health experts, foodservice leaders, chefs, entrepreneurs, and both governmental and nongovernmental agencies believe we should.

The Menus of Change 2nd Annual Leadership Summit (June 9–11, Cambridge, Massachusetts) tilled fertile ground in a think-tank-style conference that upended pedestrian thinking and imbued it with adroit, creative, practical and evidence-based notions of how to address our many food-related challenges. As a joint initiative of The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Harvard School of Public Health, the meeting aimed to improve all phases in the complicated business of providing people with delicious, healthy and planet-sustaining food.

Considering that United Nations’ world-population projections estimate we will have another 2 billion people to feed in the next 35 years, the order is tall and most certainly critical. For perspective, that kind of growth means about 28% more people on the earth, or the equivalent of increasing today’s U.S. population (319 million) by a breathtaking 620%. Collaborating to catalyze change is imperative.

Knowing that so many weighty issues cannot be resolved in the scope of a 3-day meeting, CIA and Harvard leadership wisely narrowed the conversation to three main areas: climate change, protein, and fruit and vegetable consumption. Following are actionable highlights from the event.

Rethink the Composition of Your Plate

Whether you prepare your own food or frequently eat out, there are strategies for making your plate a more mindful and sustainable one. Chief among these is giving fruits and vegetables a starring, rather than supporting, role.

While this practice applies to all eaters, the message was tailored to resonate with chefs and foodservice leadership. Since many of our daily eating occasions occur outside the home, we depend on chefs to use their creativity and awareness to keep us on the right health track while still serving us craveable food that keeps their businesses thriving. Several live cooking demos brought these ideas to life with commentary from chefs on health aspects, flavor profiles and sustainability ideas (see this month’s Recipe for Health—in the Food for Thought column—which was demoed at the event by Chef Adam Busby of the CIA).

Action for You and Your Clients

  • Make vegetables the stars of the plate. Treat animal protein as more of a “condiment.”
  • Look to the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate and USDA’s MyPlate as examples of how to proportion fruits and vegetables as half the dish (with more vegetables than fruits). Grains—preferably whole and intact—and protein take about a quarter of the plate each, rounding out the main food groups. And remember, “protein” doesn’t automatically mean meat. In fact, menu-planning emphasis should be on fish, shellfish, poultry, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Consider blending vegetables and other plant-based proteins into dishes that would traditionally be 100% meat. Chopped mushrooms are a great blend with ground beef or ground poultry to make hamburgers, meatballs, meatloaf, taco mixtures, etc. Experiment with other vegetable-blending ideas as well.

Disrupt the Link Between Food Production and Climate Change

According to event presenter Kari Hamerschlag, MA, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth’s Food and Technology Program in Berkeley, California, “If everyone in the U.S. reduced meat consumption by 15% (replacing meat with vegetable proteins), it would be like not driving 91 billion miles—or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.” Reducing meat consumption by 15% is roughly equivalent to giving up meat 1 day per week.

Alan Miller, JD, MPP—an international authority on climate finance and policy who recently retired from a post as principal climate change specialist for the World Bank—joined Hamerschlag on the Climate Change and Menu Strategy panel. He underscored that because the rest of the world wants to eat the way we do in the West (i.e., with more meat on the plate), implications for climate change in context of a dramatically growing global population are verging on dire.

More meat on more plates worldwide leads to a cascade of environmental effects that will only accelerate the warming of the planet, he said. These factors include deforestation to create more farmland for growing grain for animals and for housing them; more greenhouse gas emissions (primarily methane from cattle); and a broader carbon footprint to process the animals and get the meat to market. There are also the matters of animal waste, water for crops and livestock, pesticide runoff, and nonessential antibiotic use.

“Most humans will experience climate change through impacts on food,” Miller said. “Interestingly, food issues are absent from the world conversation on climate change. Malnutrition, starvation and skyrocketing prices are all concerns. What is grown and where [it is grown] will become a huge issue.”

Of course, there are personal health implications to eating less meat as well. Walter Willet, PhD, MD, who chairs the CIA Menus of Change Scientific & Technical Advisory Council as well as the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, cited a 2013 JAMA Internal Medicine study (Pan et al. 2013) that clearly demonstrated how changes in red-meat consumption impacted subsequent risk of type 2 diabetes. Increasing red-meat consumption over time is associated with elevated risk of type 2, and the association is partly mediated by body weight; on the other hand, limiting red-meat consumption over time confers benefits for type 2 prevention.

Action for You and Your Clients

  • It’s pretty simple. Go meatless at least 1 day per week, if not for your personal health, then for the health of the planet.
  • As described in the section above, cut meat use in half by blending traditional 100% meat dishes with vegetables.

Transform the Protein Paradigm

We may have more options than ever for different kinds of protein, but people—including fitness professionals— are confounded by the question of how much and what type of protein to consume. Stanford University professor of medicine Christopher Gardner, PhD, launched his talk, “Protein 101,” by saying this is no surprise, as the information presented by the media is often misinterpreted, vague and contradictory.

When it comes to recommended versus actual protein intake for American men and women, we clearly overconsume, according to Gardner. Women 18 and older should average about 46 grams a day; men 18 and older should average about 58 g a day. In reality, the daily average for both men and women is about 111 g per day, 85% of which is animal-based. Bear in mind we all have different protein needs, which makes seeking knowledge on this front critical.

Action for You and Your Clients

  • Educate yourself about protein, and be in the vanguard of protein literacy for your clients. What is this nutrient? What does it do for your body? What are protein “norms” for your level of activity and the type of lifestyle you lead? Collaborate with a dietary professional to deliver a workshop on protein at your club or studio.
  • Track protein intake as closely as you can using apps or a journal. Better yet, hire a qualified nutrition professional to help you and your clients. Chances are good that you are already getting too much protein. Overconsumption equates to waste of protein resources and of body energy used in processing the nutrient.
  • Experiment with the many plant-based proteins available today. There are wide-ranging and delicious options that can be woven into the diet. Share your tips and experiences with others.

No Time to Waste

With the far-reaching implications of overweight and obesity always on the periphery of these conversations, Willett pointed to a study published in The Lancet (Ng 2014) showing that the pace of overweight and obesity across the world may be slowing. “Trends are still going up, but the curve is bending and may be flattening out,” he said. This is not exactly cause for celebration, however. In fact, putting as positive a spin on it as he could, Willet said we could look at this slowing trend with eyes that see “the cup is a quarter full.”

As he indicated, the disconcerting part of the picture is that although the curve has flattened, much of the damage has already been done. The consequences for health will continue to mount over the next 30–40 years, since the effects of obesity-related chronic diseases take time to register. “The rate of complications is directly related to disease rates,” Willett said. “These will continue to increase for decades into the future.”

While this year’s Menus of Change 2014 Executive Summary and Annual Report show that the foodservice industry continued to make modest progress over the past 12 months in improving our nation’s dietary intake, said Willett, “the pace of change has to increase dramatically to address unacceptably high obesity rates and other public health imperatives.”

“This year, the scientific community reached significant agreement on the public health impacts of sodium and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and the use of antibiotics in food production,
which all must be reduced, as well as the need to quickly address climate change and water scarcity, which have shifted from future risks to current costs for the industry,” he added. “Things are careening off course. We are on a trajectory toward disaster in both health and sustainability as well as greenhouse gas production if we don’t do something now.”

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