Despite a plague of obesity in some parts of the world, malnutrition continues to stalk many in other parts of the planet, including some of the world’s wealthier countries.
Dr Ty Beal, a global nutrition and food system scientist, has highlighted that about a quarter of the world’s children experience stunted growth from malnutrition – and a third of all women are anaemic.
He outlined the findings at a Beef + Lamb New Zealand webinar that identified some of the key benefits of sourcing more nutrients and protein from animals, while also pointing out some of the pitfalls greater consumption can bring.
Beal works as a research adviser to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), identifying nutrient gaps and barriers to quality diets in Asia and eastern and southern Africa.
His work focuses on striking a balance between sustainable agricultural systems and the provision of higher quality proteins and nutrients, often through livestock systems.
“At present we have about 1.6 billion children and women of reproductive age in the world who are deficient in at least one nutrient.”
Even in relatively wealthy economies this deficiency exists, with one in five women in the United Kingdom and the United States deficient in iron.
“Deficiencies vary across regions but are still ubiquitous.”
Critically, protein levels are lacking in the diets of 1 billion people on the planet, and more than 5 billion people lack sufficient calcium, iron, and vitamin E in their diets.
“Vitamin B12, iron, zinc and calcium intakes are all below recommended levels, particularly amongst women,” he said.
Quality animal proteins are seriously lacking in Africa and Asia in particular. Many people would like to consume more, but they simply cannot afford them.
In terms of bioavailability, animal sources still provide the best means of acquiring a number of minerals and nutrients, including being the only dietary source for heme iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D.
Animal sources are also the only means of sourcing the complete amino acid profile and bioavailable protein, alongside a number of beneficial compounds including creatine and peptides.
Far from advocating a switch to all-animal sourced diets, Beal pointed to the need for closer consideration of where animal components can be included in diets that may be missing them at present.
“We know phytate is in heavily plant-based diets and can limit the absorption of zinc and micronutrients.”
When ranked in terms of their ability to provide an average of one-third of recommended intakes of vitamins A, B12, calcium, iron, and zinc for women between 15-49, animal-sourced foods including beef, eggs, cow’s milk and assorted offal are in the “very high” category.
Animal-sourced foods also provide higher quality protein than most plant-based foods, with lean beef at the top.
Beal’s findings are reinforced by recent work done at the Riddet Institute in Palmerston North. There, researchers have developed a new means of evaluating human nutritive protein intake, basing it more upon the quality of the protein’s amino acids than simply upon the quantity of protein consumed.
This work also ranks dairy and red meat proteins higher in their significance within human diets.
Beal highlighted the importance of animal proteins at different points in the human life cycle. Animal-sourced foods can help ensure optimal breast milk levels of vitamin B12, while also improving child growth and development.
He also noted the value of red meat consumption for older adults to help stave off the effects of muscle atrophy.
However, he highlighted the established risks of overconsumption, citing overconsumption of processed and unprocessed red meat as a key risk. The other was overconsumption of animal-sourced saturated fats.
“For unprocessed red meat, high intakes are associated with non-communicable diseases but at moderate intakes those risks diminish or disappear.”
Consumption of about 70g a day of red meat is recommended, and it is safer to cook meat in non-carcinogenic prompting ways, such as poaching, boiling or stewing.
The EAT-Lancet dietary report released in 2019 emphasised a need to reduce red meat consumption to only 98g a week and lower dairy-sourced fats.
However, with a version 2.0 of the diet report due out next year, Beal said it is possible there will be some variation on the original.
“Generally, there is a benefit from increased consumption of animal proteins that will outweigh the risks of increased unprocessed meat consumption. Sustainable diets are plant rich, but need to be nutrient adequate.”