Irish diet is damaging our health and the planet

By June Shannon Nutrition News   |   12th May 2020

A new study has found that the Irish diet is dominated by cereals, dairy, red meat, savoury and dessert dishes – a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is better for your heart

New research has warned that the Irish diet is rich in unsustainable foods, is causing nutritional and financial problems and is not good for the environment.

The findings are explored in two new reports published by researchers from the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

In one of the papers, the team performed an assessment of the Irish diet by comparing it with the EAT-Lancet Commission ‘planetary healthy’ reference diet using both data from the Irish Universities National Adult Nutrition Survey.

According to this report, “the Irish Diet maybe described as one rich in cereals, dairy, red meat and convenience foods (miscellaneous savoury and sweet dishes). The top 70 per cent of the daily calorific intake is made up of cereals, dairy, red meat, savoury and dessert dishes. With less than 5 per cent of the total daily total made up of legumes, non-starchy vegetables and fruit.”

The Irish Diet maybe described as one rich in cereals, dairy, red meat and convenience foods.

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The EAT-Lancet Commission ‘planetary healthy’ reference diet essentially states that global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double while we reduce consumption of red meat and sugar if we are to feed 10 billion people by 2050.

Broadly, the planetary health diet recommended in the EAT-Lancet Commission report states that we should eat more fruit and vegetables, plant proteins (e.g. beans, peas, lentils, nuts), whole grains, unsaturated plant oils and less animal protein (such as red and processed meat), refined grains (like white bread, white pasta etc.) and sugary food and drinks.

The TCD paper’s assessment of the Irish diet found that it was rich in unsustainable food items and contained multiple sources of animal protein, such as farmed fish, pork and lamb, which score poorly from a nutritional-financial cost perspective.

According to the report, adopting the EAT-Lancet ‘planetary healthy’ reference diet could result in major financial savings, more nutritional diets, and would be much better for the future of the planet from a global warming perspective.

“It has long been recognised that a diet more focused on plant-based foods is best for our health as reflected in the Irish Food Pyramid,"

Sarah Noone, Dietitan , The Irish Heart Foundation

Commenting Sarah Noone, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a leading cause of death and disability in Ireland and causes more than half of all deaths across the European Union.

“We know what we eat influences our risk of developing CVD. It is clear that how we currently eat does not reflect the existing healthy eating guidelines and is not sustainable for human or environmental health. Broadly speaking, we now live in a world where cheap, fast and highly processed food is easily available and often cheaper and easier to access than healthier options like fruits and vegetables.

“Despite a lack of consensus or formal definition, a ‘sustainable diet’ focuses on a dietary pattern that is predominantly based on healthy plant foods while the consumption of meat and animal produce is reduced.  Moving towards a more plant-based diet is likely to benefit the environment. However, it is worth bearing in mind that changes need to occur higher up at legislative and other levels to make a difference in terms of the environment.

“It has also long been recognised that a diet more focused on plant-based foods is best for our health as reflected in the Irish Food Pyramid which states that the largest proportion of our diet should come from fruit, vegetables, salad, beans, peas and lentils. However, eating a more sustainable diet does not have to mean becoming a vegetarian or vegan, unless you wish to do so. A plant-based diet doesn’t need to be plant-only.  A practical and realistic message is that most people should eat more plants and less animal products, or simply, put follow the food pyramid.”

“Global diets have become more ‘westernised,’ less healthy and more damaging to the environment."

Mike Williams, Assistant Professor in Botany, School of Natural Sciences, TCD

Mike Williams, assistant professor in botany in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, and lead author of both reports, said, “Global diets have become more ‘westernised,’ less healthy and more damaging to the environment. Over-consumption of nutritionally poor foods has led to a global crisis in obesity, diabetes, cardiac disease and colon cancer, while the global food industry has failed the environment in terms of its impact on global warming and nitrogen pollution. The agriculture sector accounts for 26 per cent of global warming, and in terms of mitigating the effects of agricultural nitrogen pollution, was costing each European approximately $1,000 a year according to the 2011 European Nitrogen Assessment.”

In the second paper, the TCD researchers looked beyond Ireland to Europe and found that the same issues largely applied.

This report found that as countries get ‘richer’, meat consumption increases and the ‘healthfulness’ of diets declines. It also found that almost no Mediterranean country now has a ‘Mediterranean diet’ – traditionally comprising lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and some seafood and one of the best diets for heart health.

The researchers also found that the European diet was particularly unsustainable given the dependency on red meat, cereals, dairy and animal fats and alcohol consumption was almost five times the calorie intake of legumes.

We are here for you

The Irish Heart Foundation’s nurse support line is available five days a week. Anyone living with heart disease and stroke who has concerns or questions about the coronavirus can contact the nurse support line on 01 668 5001 or support@irishheart.ie.

The Irish Heart Foundation’s new heart support group is on Facebook. Anyone who lives with heart failure or another heart condition or has a family member living with a heart condition can join here: www.facebook.com/groups/heartsupportnetwork/

The Irish Heart Foundation runs 21 stroke support groups and 5 heart failure groups around the country. All these groups have moved to telephone and online support. For more information, see https://irishheart.ie/get-support/.

The Irish Heart Foundation in conjunction with the HSE National Stroke Programme, has launched a new telephone support service for stroke patients who have recently been discharged from hospital. For more information, see here.

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cardiovascular disease diet dietitian healthy eating heart disease Lancet nutrition plant based diet

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