FAO analysis hails benefits of animal sources for a high-nutrient diet with meat, eggs and milk flagged as crucial
25 Apr 2023 --- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says meat, eggs and milk are vital sources of nutrients which “cannot easily be obtained from plant-based foods.” However, the new report flags that governments should promote the benefits of sourcing food from land-based animals but consider challenges linked to livestock, including environmental issues.
The study says that getting nutrients from meat, eggs and milk is particularly vital during pregnancy and lactation, childhood, adolescence and older age.
Entitled “Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health outcomes,” FAO says it’s the most comprehensive analysis of the benefits and risks of consuming animal source foods. It is based on data and evidence from over 500 scientific papers and around 250 policy documents.
The report says that meat, eggs and milk provide a range of essential macro-nutrients, including protein, fats, carbohydrates and micro-nutrients, that can be difficult to obtain from plant-based foods in the required quality and quantity.
High-quality protein, several essential fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, vitamin B12, choline and bioactive compounds like carnitine, creatine and taurine are provided by foods from terrestrial animals and have important health and developmental functions.
Combating nutrient deficiencies
Iron and vitamin A are among the most common micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, particularly in children and pregnant women.
FAO says that 372 million preschool-aged children worldwide and 1.2 billion women of child-bearing age suffer from the lack of at least one of three micronutrients: iron, vitamin A, or zinc. Three-quarters of these children live in South and East Asia, the Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa.
Consumption of food from terrestrial animals varies widely around the world. A person in the Democratic Republic of the Congo consumes, on average, only 160 grams of milk a year, while someone in Montenegro consumes 338 kilograms.
A person in South Sudan consumes 2 grams of eggs on average a year compared to an average of 25kg in Hong Kong. The average person in Burundi consumes just 3 kilograms of meat a year, compared to 136 kilograms for someone living in Hong Kong.
If consumed as part of an appropriate diet, animal-source foods can help with meeting the nutrition targets endorsed by the World Health Assembly and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to reducing stunting, wasting among children under five years of age, low birth weight, anemia in women of reproductive age, and obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in adults.
But at the same time, the livestock sector must contribute to addressing a range of challenges, including deforestation, land-use changes, greenhouse-gas emissions, unsustainable water and land use, pollution, food–feed competition, herd management (e.g., low productivity, overgrazing, poor animal welfare), animal health-related issues (e.g., diseases, antimicrobial resistance), human-livestock related issues (e.g., zoonotic and food-borne diseases) and social issues (e.g., equity).
The report also says that consuming even low levels of processed red meat can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease outcomes, including cardiovascular diseases and colorectal cancer. However, consuming unprocessed red meat in moderate amounts (ranging from 9 to 71 grams per day) may have minimal risk but is considered safe with regard to chronic disease outcomes.
Meanwhile, the evidence of any links between milk, eggs and poultry consumption in healthy adults and diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes and hypertension is inconclusive (for milk) or non-significant (for eggs and poultry).
The recent First Session of FAO’s Committee on Agriculture Sub-Committee on Livestock encouraged governments to update national dietary guidelines to consider how meat, eggs and milk can contribute to specific nutrient requirements.
Edited by Gaynor Selby
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