Plant Protein, Climate Change And Ageing

Plant protein, climate change and ageing

Want to learn how to make a difference to the planet with your diet? We take a look at plant protein for an eco-friendly diet and the links between climate change and ageing.

For most of us eating is a pleasurable and habitual, but mostly unconscious, activity, with little regard for its environmental impact. We don’t deny ourselves an ice cream because it might increase our carbon footprint. As we all froze in 2020, when our survival was suddenly threatened by a lethal microorganism, global warming enjoyed a temporary downturn while we momentarily aborted some of our customary travel behaviours. The sound of no aeroplanes in the sky and the relative absence of vehicles from our roads as we locked down to limit our exposure to our fellow potentially deadly germ spreaders was a novel and highly welcome respite from the usual daily cacophony. The videos of animals reclaiming the streets and Sir David Attenborough’s breathtakingly intimate depiction of the natural wonders of the universe in the Perfect Planet series were jarring reminders of how much our once pristine paradise is under threat from our destructive habits.

This would have been time to reflect and consider how we can re-engage in a more salubrious fashion with our natural environment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t taken long for our habitual customs to reassert themselves. Traffic is already reaching pre-pandemic levels and international travel is being hastily resurrected. It wouldn’t have taken much to identify how we can behave differently so that the gains, however small, in reducing global warming could be maintained, and possibly even enhanced. One of the most elemental ways we can still do this is to examine what we consume.

Consuming concerns

What we eat makes up 30 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. If we ate more judiciously we could reduce our daily carbon footprint by as much as 60 per cent. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has advised that a sustainable diet should have a low environmental impact and be nutritionally adequate. Protein, found in eggs, meat and fish and much less so in beans, plant foods, nuts and seeds, would be a good place to start.

Protein is the most vital of foods. Without it we would not be able to manufacture DNA, the blueprint for making new cells, which we continue to do until the day we die. Mentally and emotionally we’d be compromised as we need protein to manufacture the brain chemicals that fashion our emotional responses and germinate our memories. Depression, anxiety and forgetfulness are in part a consequence of a lack of protein. Our muscles would shrink and our bones would atrophy if they didn’t receive the protein nourishment they need to constantly regenerate. Optimising our protein status might preclude the need for drugs to treat osteoporosis and resurrect our contracting frames, as well as antidepressant and anxiety-relieving medications that are prescribed so liberally.

Research done around the planet shows that adopting a plant protein diet that is plant-based leads to a markedly reduced carbon footprint compared with those cultures like ours, for example, which embrace the excessive consumption of meat, dairy and eggs. Aside from being good for the environment, limiting eggs to three a week can help to prevent prostate, breast and ovarian cancer. The best environmentally friendly dairy alternative is almond milk, but cultivating almonds requires a lot of water and bees are recruited to pollinate almond trees, which sadly reduces their colonies prematurely by at least a third. Drinking coconut milk might also be a better carbon-emitting option compared with dairy, but in parts of the world where coconuts are harvested cruel animal practices that underpin this industry abound. To avoid supporting these customs, choosing coconut products that are certified Fairtrade would be an ethical alternative, but I’ve yet to see these labels on coconut products.

Moving from animal to plant protein might be hugely beneficial for the environment but it is a two-edged sword. While it might lead to less cancer, heart disease and maybe longer lives, obtaining all the protein we need from a plant-based diet is much more difficult than sourcing it from animals. We need one gram of plant protein per kilogram per day. So, if we weigh 80kg we need 80 grams of protein every day. One serve of fish or meat for example will provide around 25 grams of protein, but one cup of beans or lentils only contains about 16 grams of plant protein. Edamame or boiled soybeans, which is not one of our daily staples, is a massive improvement on these numbers, as one cup can furnish as much as 31 grams of plant protein.

There are ways to find out if you are fulfilling your daily protein requirements. Fingernail ridges, which are lines from the base of your nailbed to your fingertips, and dimpling of the pulp of your fingers suggest that you might be lacking protein. Osteoporosis and a decline in muscle mass might also be pointers to a diminished supply of protein. Then there is a simple blood test which computes what is called the “protein metabolic index” (regrettably not utilised by most doctors), that can assess your protein status and can then be used to work out if a protein-boosting strategy is effective.

Even though you might not appreciate it, your wellbeing is inextricably intertwined with that of the natural order of your universe. Paying attention to your diet and your protein-eating habits would be one way to dramatically strengthen that symbiosis.

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.

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