Plant-based diets ‘can be healthier and greener’

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

More should be done to boost the micronutrient content of plants, says professor Christine Williams
More should be done to boost the micronutrient content of plants, says professor Christine Williams

Related tags: Nutrition

Plant-based diets were “probably” healthier and more sustainable for the planet, but further research was needed to confirm initial indications, an eminent nutrition scientist has claimed.

Rather than focusing on raising agricultural yields and trying to promote the consumption of alternative meat proteins – such as insects – more should be be done to enrich the micronutrient content of plants, said Professor Christine Williams, external director for food agriculture and health at the University of Reading.

“Overconsumption of natural resource has led to loss of resilience in climate, food and environmental systems,”​ Williams said last month, as part of a series of public lectures on the environment organised by Southampton University.

“So, those systems have broken down and are no longer able to adapt. And they are no longer as efficient as they once were,”​ she said. “I would say the same thing has happened to human weight regulation – we have lost the ability to maintain our body weight.”

Williams claimed that, from an energy standpoint: “We have been converting fossil fuel into adipose tissue for the past 40 years.”

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

She called for more interdisciplinary research that linked reducing greenhouse gas emissions to measures to improve human diets.

“The question is: are the solutions for sustainable diets the same as those for healthy diets?”​ said Williams. “Most nutrition scientists would agree we should be eating more plant. The questions are how much, where from and what quality?”​ she added.

Between the 1950s and 1990s, agriculture had vastly improved wheat yields, she reported, which had helped to make food cheaper.

“What we are trying to do now is increase the yield from 10t/ha to 20t/ha as a means of responding to the food security challenge,”​ she reported. “I can see some logic to that – although I’m not sure if it is possible.”

‘Responding to the food security challenge

However, Williams questioned whether yield should be the focus of attention, given that 60% of the UK population was overweight and obese, and given the amount of food that was wasted? Instead, she suggested micronutrient enrichment of plants to improve tits nutritional quality.

As people are encouraged to reduce their meat consumption, Williams disputed suggestions that we should instead be eating more insects.

“From a nutritional perspective, are we deficient in protein? No, not really. In the UK, protein is not a problem and it is not a problem in vegetarians either,”​ she added. “It’s not really a solution, it’s a novelty.”

Instead, she argued the main problems with plant-based diets were some were deficient in minerals, such as B12, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.

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