• Stories: The dark side of vegetarians: neither greener nor healthier

If you are one of those who live September as a month to make a blur and a new account, it is very likely that right now you are immersed in a sea of ​​purposes to become a better version of yourself. In that long list you drive, eating better is almost certainly one of the first items. The classic habit that, year after year, you propose to improve and, soon, do not delay in abandoning.

But don't be discouraged. This year we give you another reason to remain firm in your intention. Every time your will falters, think that not only your health depends on the diet you choose. Also the planet is at stake.

It is being noticed by top experts around the world: both the well-being of the population and the sustainability of the world in which we live, inevitably go through a change in the way we consume - and produce - food . And that, at least for the inhabitants of the first world, means drastically reducing the intake of meat and exponentially increasing that of fruits, vegetables and legumes.

They call it a flexitarian diet , alluding to a basically vegetarian eating pattern in which the meat has occasional place. And it is very different from the one that most Spanish people carry today, although it is gaining adherents.

According to data from the consulting firm Lantern, in 2017 6.3% of the population declared themselves flexitarian, a percentage that together with 1.3% of vegetarians and 0.2% of vegans set the trend by more than three and a half million Veggie in Spain.

We need to keep food production within limits that reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic changes in the land system

Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission, which brings together 37 leading scientists from 16 countries, drew up a global plan with some of the concrete measures that are needed so that, in 2050, the planet can feed, without dying in the I try, to the almost 10,000 million people expected.

Among other initiatives, the panel noted the need for a transformation that doubles the intake of "healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds" and reduces the consumption of less healthy foods, such as meat, by more than 50% on average. red

According to his advice, we must change our dishes so that fruit and vegetables occupy at least half of the space, so that our main source of protein is vegetable -through, for example, legumes such as lentils or beans- and fish , meat and dairy products are consumed occasionally and in moderate quantities.

These measures would not only allow " prevent approximately 11 million deaths per year , which represents between 19% and 24% of total deaths in adults," said the commission, but also keep food production within limits that reduce the risk of "irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes in the terrestrial system".

In the same vein, an international investigation published last December in the journal Nature the options that we manage to keep the food system within the necessary borders for the survival of the planet. And one of the main keys also underlined the need to reduce the consumption of animal protein in favor of the vegetable in the menus.

In short, more chickpeas and less ribeye.

Luis Lassaletta, a researcher at the Center for Studies and Research for Agricultural and Environmental Risk Management at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, is one of the signatories of the work. In his opinion, in order to adopt these nutritional measures, we Spaniards do not have to learn new patterns, nor coin new culinary terms: we just have to look back a little.

"In the case of Spain, betting on the Mediterranean diet would be the ideal option, since it is a healthy diet, environmentally sustainable and based on products adapted to our climate," he says. The problem is that decades ago we abandoned this traditional diet: "In the 60s, the proportion of animal protein in the usual diet in Spain was 35%," says Lassaletta. «Currently, it exceeds 60%».

One of the most unfortunate myths in the collective imagination is that it is necessary to eat meat daily

Miguel Ángel Martínez, nutrition expert

Although meat consumption has been progressively reduced in the last 10 years, in 2018 2,115 million kilos were eaten in Spain, equivalent to about 46 kilos per person per year , according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

"One of the most unfortunate myths in the collective imaginary is that it is necessary to eat meat on a daily basis," agrees Miguel Ángel Martínez, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Navarra and one of the most renowned nutrition experts in the country.

“Unfortunately, the Spanish thinks that if he has not eaten meat, he has not eaten. But in a healthy diet you can not only have, but there must be days without meat, ”says the specialist, who does not like the term flexitarianism by imprecise:“ How many times a week is allowed to eat meat to a flexitarian? In what quantity? What kind of meat?".

According to their guidelines, and as a general recommendation, "there should be at least one or two days a week when no meat is eaten . " In addition, when preparing an omnivorous menu, it is also necessary to put poultry meat over red meat, whose intake should not exceed "two servings of 125 grams per week." The restriction of processed meats, he underlines, must be even greater.

In the same vein, the Spanish Agency for Consumption, Food Safety and Nutrition (AECOSAN), under the Ministry of Health, which advises a moderate consumption of red meat, which does not exceed two or three intakes per week, has already pronounced, «already that its continued and / or excessive consumption may be related to certain health problems ».

The abuse of red and processed meats has been associated, for years, with an increased risk of diseases such as cardiovascular diseases. But since 2015 it also worries about its relationship with the development of tumors . That year, the International Cancer Research Center (IARC), under the World Health Organization, issued an evaluation that linked these products with cancer.

The report was especially blunt with processed meats, noting that "there is convincing evidence that this agent causes cancer." According to their estimates, "each 50 gram serving of processed meat consumed daily increases the risk of developing a tumor in the colon by approximately 18%."

The IARC also noted in 2015 that the available evidence on the relationship between red meat and cancer was "limited", although sufficient to include this food in group 2A, which encompasses agents "probably carcinogenic to humans . "

Meat and its high production costs for the planet is also one of the axes on which the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been built, which, this summer, returned to remember the need to take a radical turn in the usual menu of the population if we intend for global warming to remain below two degrees Celsius at the end of the century, as established by the Paris Agreements .

If we substitute the meat for ultraprocessed products, the impact will be very small

Beatriz Robles

However, reducing meat consumption and production is not the only challenge we face to preserve our health and that of the planet. For example, if we think of our body, we must be aware that giving up meat is not the panacea of ​​well-being if it is the only custom we modify. For this to take effect, the habit must be accompanied by an increase in the consumption of high-quality vegetable protein - such as legumes -, explains Beatriz Robles, a specialist in Food Science and Technology and Nutrition.

If we substitute meat for ultraprocessed products, "the impact is going to be very small, just as it is of little use to eliminate meat but maintain a smoking habit or be sedentary . " And he emphasizes: "We have to take care of the diet as a whole, opting for healthy foods, not replacing some foods not recommended by others that do not contribute either."

Lassaletta also insists on the idea that a global change in diet is a necessary but not sufficient condition to save the planet. The control of food waste, the reuse of waste from the production system or the application of efficient practices in livestock and farming systems, to name a few, are key to guarantee the sustainability of our way of life .

"I think it is essential that society be aware of the very important challenge that lies ahead," he remarks. "We have to contribute as consumers, without a doubt, but also supporting education, betting on information, traceability or research on the sustainability of the agri-food system."

The future is in our hands. And in our stomachs.

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