Expert wants hard and fast evidence on our diet as protein comes under the spotlight.

A call for a national diet survey has come from a leading nutritionist as Kiwis are eating less meat.

Sarah Hanrahan, CEO of the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation, says a survey would enable nutritionists to provide more targeted dietary advice especially as more people reduce the amount of meat – traditionally a staple around the Kiwi dinner table and a primary source of protein.

Hanrahan says there is also anecdotal evidence New Zealanders are adopting new eating trends like flexitarianism, a term given to a diet which is mainly vegetarian with small amounts of meat.

"I can say it's a trend, but it may only be in some sectors of the community," she says. "A national survey on diet would give us the hard evidence we could rely on."

Advertisement

Although the 2019 Better Futures Report (based on research conducted by Colmar Brunton) shows one in ten New Zealanders say they are vegetarian or mostly meat free, a figure that has risen by three per cent since 2017, Hanrahan believes a more detailed across-the-board survey into what Kiwis are eating is needed.

Protein is important for health. It is used in the body to build and repair tissue and is a key building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood – and if people are eating less meat they need to be well informed on alternative sources.

These include foods such as fish, dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt), beans, legumes (chickpeas and lentils) and soy products.

Hanrahan says eggs are also an excellent protein option: "They are a good form of protein (two eggs contain 13g of protein), they are versatile, well liked and are relatively cheap.

"For most people eggs are familiar, can be added to many meals - an egg on toast or on baked beans, that's a meal - used in pies and bakes and give people confidence they can eat less meat but at the same time maintain good levels of protein in their diet."

The myth that eggs are bad for you no longer holds. The Heart Foundation, Ministry of Health and the Nutrition Foundation have all given eggs a big tick for nutrition, protein and vitamins while the Heart Foundation says even those at risk of heart disease can eat 6-7 eggs a week.

Hanrahan says it is okay to include meat on the dinner plate two or three times a week.

However she believes many people are reluctant to cut back either because they worry about wasting money on food they may not like or because alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu – all good sources of protein – can be "a bit too dramatic for some."

Calls for people to reduce meat consumption - for both human and planetary health - are not new. Although meat is a good source of protein (a 133g piece of sirloin steak contains about 33g of protein), it can be high in saturated fats while experts believe eating less red meat has benefits for the environment given farming practices used to rear cattle are a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time a growing number of international studies include eggs as a protein alternative. A report published earlier this year in the medical journal The Lancet listed eggs among a group of foods it recommends (others included chicken, fish, fruit and vegetables) while it said consumption of red meat needs to be "cut back massively" to help global sustainability.

And in an article published in The Guardian in Britain, registered dietician Kate Geagan said eggs are one of the most climate-friendly sources of animal protein.

Hanrahan recommends a balanced diet - although New Zealanders need to up the amount of plant food they eat – and protein is a big plus for eggs.

She says they are a complete natural protein and contain all the essential amino acids needed for healthy body functions. For their weight they provide the highest quality of protein of all foods, are highly digestible, give a fuller feeling for longer thus helping with weight management.

"For seniors it is also very important to have protein distributed evenly throughout the day, not just one meal," she says. "Eggs are perfect for that, they are easy to prepare and a great example of whole foods versus processed foods."