What’s the Bull?

In 2019, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was “trying to eat less meat both for health reasons and for reasons of climate change”. Outrage ensued but was he right? Should we all change our diet for our health and the planet?

The environment question

In 2019, RTÉ introduced the TV licence-holding public to a new show concept, What Planet Are You On? The premise is that four families go head to head to reduce the climate impact of their lives for a cash prize. Four areas are tackled – waste, water, energy and diet. A number of scientists judge the families’ performance each week.

Early in the 2020 series, one couple (contestants) shared the following exchange in relation to their food and the environment: “Thought it was just beef [that impacted the environment]”; “No it’s everything you put in your mouth”.

This is true for both the planet and your diet. Everything you eat has an environmental impact and will also have an impact on your body. And no less than the nutritional value of a food is dependent on multiple factors, the environmental impact of food production is also multi-factorial.

The nutrition question

According to the HSE, around 145,000 people in Ireland are either malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when a person’s diet does not contain enough nutrients to meet the demands of their body.

You can also become malnourished if your diet does not contain the right balance of nutrients. When it is suggested that one food can be replaced with another (dairy milk v almond juice), you will often hear “nutrient density” referenced.

We asked Dr Vanessa Woods about this nutrient density question: “Nutrient-dense foods are rich in nutrients (eg protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals), that we need for health and wellbeing. Essential nutrients are ‘essential’ because we cannot make them in our bodies or in adequate amounts to meet requirements, and we must source them from our diet.

“Encouraging a science-based discussion on food nutrients, healthy eating and the green climate agenda among consumers is important to support informed purchasing decisions.”

Diet is individual

However, being malnourished does not necessarily mean that a person will be very thin. It is possible to eat a diet high in calories but containing very few vitamins and minerals. This means you can be overweight while also being malnourished. In the past two decades, obesity and overweight levels have doubled, with only 40% of Irish people now in the healthy weight range.

The food-environment link is not just what food we consume but how much. Teagasc and UCC research shows that those consuming food beyond their energy requirements generated 24% more carbon emissions (an extra 1.5kg of CO2 eq/day) than those eating within their requirement.

According to the Food Safety Authority of Irealdn (FSAI), another important consideration is that dietary requirements change over time. As children mature they no longer require nutrition for growth but to replace expended energy. As we age, the ability to store nutrients declines as do regulatory and recovery abilities.

Professor Paddy Wall often speaks about sarcopenia, a condition common in elderly people where they lose muscle mass and become frail. He advocates that whey protein, often a component found in athletes’ diets, should be part of the regular diet of the elderly. Bottom line – a person’s diet is individual to that person.

General dietary advice

So, accepting that one size most certainly does not fit all, how do we know what we should be eating? If you want the information, it is available in huge detail on the HSE website.

In the first airing of What Planet Are You On?, farmers were frustrated that the scientist who judged the food element advised against beef and dairy inclusion in the diet, for planetary benefit, with nutrition largely ignored. RTÉ remedied this in 2020, bringing in dietician Paula Mee to fill this gap.

Paula said that her role on the show was to advise on a balanced diet. “If and where they (the families) were consuming too much red and/or processed meat, it was suggested they might like to choose more environmentally sustainable proteins.

“Likewise, if they were consuming over and above the recommended dairy intake, we discussed the importance of balance and making sure they were getting enough nutrients from other groups.”

The all-important balance

Paula’s words sound sensible, but this is a TV show after all, and having families with a balanced approach, to the competitive factors being judged, would not have made for entertaining viewing. So, as it would be expected, the selected families were well able to make exaggerated changes to their lifestyles and eat better for both their health and for the planet.

Although the language was more positive this year in relation to diet, with the diet judge Dr Marco Springmann commenting “No use having a low-emissions diet if it’s not healthy”, there was still a lot of negative commentary in relation to meat and dairy on the show.

We looked at what is advised from the food pyramid, versus what was said on the programme by contestants and or the judges on the 2020 series.

What is the food pyramid?

Food pyramid.

Although dietary requirements vary from person to person, the food pyramid is the accepted advice from Government on diet for people over five years of age. It is divided into six shelves and shows how much of what you eat overall should come from each shelf to achieve a balanced diet.

What was said? “Their diet is 60% above what we would consider sustainable and here the problem is it’s highly imbalanced. You hardly reported any fruit and vegetable consumption, which is really essential to have a healthy and sustainable diet.”

What is advised? Vegetables, salad and fruit is the biggest shelf on the food pyramid and the advice is to base your meals on this shelf – filling up to half your plate at every meal. The advice here is to choose five to seven servings per day, where an apple or a bowl of vegetable soup is one serving.

What was said? “Beef is again, the main culprit here. You’re twelve times over the amount. It’s just crazy. Consumption of pork and poultry is four times too high. Dairy is double what it should be. Egg consumption is six times too much.”

“Easy way to conceptualise is in servings per week. Red meat, lamb, beef and pork once per week. Chicken and fish twice per week and dairy once per day. That leaves two days of being vegan or vegetarian.”

What is advised? Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts are on the third shelf of the food pyramid. They provide protein for growth and repair as well as being the main source of iron for healthy blood. The advice is to choose two servings per day. That said, what constitutes a serving is a very important consideration.

The palm of the hand, width and depth without fingers and thumbs, is the quantity of meat, poultry and fish you need in a day. That is 100-150g of lean meat, or four eggs

Dairy is on the fourth shelf of the pyramid. These foods and drinks (milk, yoghurt and cheese) provide calcium needed for healthy bones and teeth, as well as also being a source of protein for growth and repair. For adults, the recommendation is to choose three servings per day. However, for children and teenagers aged nine to 18 years, the recommendation rises to five servings per day.

Again, serving size is an important consideration. A serving is one 200ml glass of milk or two thumbs of cheese.

What was said? When queried on what alternative to cow’s milk was best, it was said that “it doesn’t matter”.

What is advised? Nutritionally, dairy milk is the best choice. The HSE advises that if choosing dairy alternatives such as soya milk and yoghurts, choose those with added calcium. An FSAI report warns that for under-fives, parents are advised against alternatives, stating that they are “nutritionally inadequate” for this age category.

What was said? “I can’t eat crisps every day but crisps are really low [environmental impact].”

“Eventually we would want everyone to have a diet that is low in processed foods but replacing meat with meat alternatives and dairy with dairy alternatives would be a good starting point.”

What is advised? In today’s world of convenience, there is more availability of processed foods and they make up a much larger percentage of our shopping basket. Processed foods contain more ingredients than fresh foods. These ingredients may not be beneficial to your health. As with all processed food, it is important to look at the nutritional information on the packaging. There are no recommended servings for products on the top shelf of the pyramid because these foods (processed snacks) are high in fat, sugar and salt and are not needed for good health. The recommendation is to eat these products a maximum of once or twice per week.

Grain of truth

With an estimated 145,000 people in this country malnourished or at risk of malnutrition, there are dietary changes required across the population. Most of us are familiar with the food pyramid but I would hazard that many of us don’t follow it, choosing too much from the higher tiers. Everything you put in your mouth has an environmental impact and will also have an impact on your body. There is a personal responsibility in the choices you make in relation to both. If everyone ate to recommendation and cut down on waste, that would be a big step in the right direction.


RTÉ did not respond to our request for comment. However, the show’s production company did. Manging director Philip Kampff said that their understanding of a healthy diet was that outlined by the HSE in its booklet Keeping Well This Winter, which is in line with the food pyramid.

He went on to say: “In What Planet Are You On? keeping with the above HSE guidelines, we are also introducing the concept of a healthy planet diet. Where people have a choice, they eat foods that are associated with lower CO2 emissions or greenhouse gases that are damaging to the planet. Our general guideline in the show for a more sustainable healthy diet is to eat red meat once a week, white meat two to three times per week, fish twice a week and two days’ plant-based foods.”

The later part is not directly in line with the HSE recommendations but when other proteins, such as eggs and beans are factored in, it is pretty close.

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