UK meat consumption – going down!

The average amount of meat eaten per person in the UK is almost double the world average. If you convert it into an average daily consumption, it comes out at 226g of meat per day for the UK. The government recommends eating no more than 70g of red or processed meat (two slices of bacon a day) and don’t specify a limit on white meat but, according to Public Health England’s new Eatwell guide, they say that protein-rich foods (beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other non-dairy sources of proteins) should make up no more than 12 per cent of the of total energy intake per day (Public Health England, 2016b).

Figure 7.0 Comparison of Public Health England’s new Eatwell Guide with the previous Food Standards Agency’s recommended Eatwell plate. 

Sources: Public Health England, 2016; FSA, 2012.  

In 2016, Public Health England’s new dietary advice recommended people halve their dairy intake and eat less meat, replacing it with beans and pulses. Figure 7.0 shows their redesigned and reworded Eatwell Guide which moved away from animal-based foods favouring more plant-based options. It seems that they are finally responding to the huge body of scientific evidence showing how harmful meat and dairy are to health. The new guidelines represent a small but significant step towards healthier eating, emphasising the importance of fruit, vegetables and complex carbohydrates (such as brown rice and wholemeal bread) in the diet. The shift in emphasis away from meat and dairy is a view more in keeping with the current research, which acknowledges the harm meat and dairy do to our health and the environment. Viva!Health have been campaigning for change for years and this has been a long time coming. The government now need to go one step further and accept the well-documented benefits of a fully vegan diet excluding all meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods.  

The new guide says: “Beans, peas and lentils (which are all types of pulses) are good alternatives to meat because they’re naturally very low in fat, and they’re high in fibre, protein, and vitamins and minerals. Pulses, or legumes as they are sometimes called, are edible seeds that grow in pods and include foods like lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas. Other vegetable-based sources of protein include tofu, bean curd and mycoprotein*; all of which are widely available in most retailers”.

*Quorn products are made from mycoprotein which is a fungal protein; ‘myco’ is from the Greek word for fungus.  

The dairy category has been renamed ‘Dairy and alternatives’ and the amount we should eat has been reduced from 15 per cent to eight per cent. Explaining why dairy products have been downgraded a spokesperson for Public Health England said: “Our independent expert body said you can get calcium from across the diet and not just from dairy products. We are currently meeting or exceeding calcium recommendations whereas we are still consuming too much saturated fat and salt.”

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist for Public Health England said: “Our new Eatwell Guide helps people to understand what a healthy balanced diet looks like. The evidence shows that we should continue to base our meals on starchy carbohydrates, especially wholegrain, and eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables each day. On the whole, cutting back on foods and drinks that are high in saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories would improve our diets, helping to reduce obesity and the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease and some cancers.”

This is a small but important departure for government health guidelines. The Carbon Trust sustainability assessment said that the new Eatwell Guide would have a much lower impact on the environment than the current UK diet does (The Carbon Trust, 2016). It seems that we are finally joining up the dots between what is good for us and what is good for the environment.  

Food group  Old advice New advice
Fruit and veg (at least 5-a-day) 33 per cent 39 per cent
Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta (choose wholegrain varieties) 33 per cent 37 per cent
Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins 12 per cent 12 per cent and emphasis shifted from meat to beans and pulses
Dairy and alternatives  15 per cent eight per cent
Food and drink high in fat and/or sugar A combined category of eight per cent three per cent
oils and spreads - one per cent

Sources: Public Health England, 2016; FSA, 2012.  

Table 13.0 A comparison of the new advice from Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide compared to the FSA’s old Eatwell Plate. 

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) is a study of people’s eating habits across the UK jointly funded by Public Health England and the FSA. Each year about 1,300 people aged 18 months and up take part. The survey gives a snapshot of the country’s diet and nutritional habits and helps monitor the success of government health initiatives, like the 5-a-day campaign.

Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide suggests that meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein should make up no more than 12 per cent of the of total energy intake per day. The 2000/2001 NDNS found that these foods made up 22 per cent, almost double the recommended amount (17 per cent of which were meat or meat products). Within the protein group of foods, a fifth of was made up of chicken and turkey dishes, 15.5 per cent was beef and veal dishes, the remainder consisted mainly of baked beans (7.0 per cent), eggs (6.7), bacon and ham (6.6), meat pies and pastries (6.3), oily fish (5.4), sausages (4.2), pork and pork dishes (3.9) and white fish (3.9). Nuts and seeds, an excellent source of protein, energy and healthy fat, contributed less than one (0.9) per cent of energy intake.

Foods and drinks high in sugar and fat made up 15 per cent, five times the amount recommended. Over a fifth of this category was made up of chips, the rest consisted of buns, cakes and pastries, fried potatoes and products made from them, biscuits, sugar, chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, cereal-based puddings and ice-cream. One of the problems with such high intakes of meat, fat and sugary foods is that it inevitably occurs at the expense of other, healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables, and carbohydrates (bread, rice pasta and potatoes).

More recently, the 2014 NDNS found that again, meat contributed more than the recommended 12 per cent energy intake. Meat was the second largest contributor (after cereals) to energy intake for children aged 11-18 years and adults aged 19-64, contributing 17 per cent of energy intake in both groups, down from 22 per cent in 2000/2001. They found that the average consumption of total meat and red meat was lower in most groups assessed in 2011-2012 compared with an earlier assessment in 2008-2009 (Bates et al., 2014). So although on a global scale, UK meat consumption is relatively high, it is in a steady and consistent decline.  

We may be moving in the right direction but the speed at which we are moving is painfully slow with the majority of people in industrialised countries still consuming meat. The 2014 NDNS report found the average consumption of red meat for adults aged 19-64 was close to the government’s recommended upper limit of 70g per day coming in at 71g per day. However, men were found to be consuming significantly higher amounts (86g for men and 56g for women). For adults aged 65 or over, average red meat intake was 63g per day, but men still exceeded the 70g limit (75g for men and 54g for women). This was just red meat consumption, chicken, turkey and mixed dishes containing them were the most commonly consumed type of meat for all age groups except those aged 65 and over. For older adults, the most commonly consumed meat was bacon and ham – processed meats that the WCRF said should be avoided and the WHO said cause cancer (see Cancer). The government, undoubtedly under pressure from the meat industry, are dragging their feet. Viva!Health shows in this report why public health recommendations for meat intake should be zero.