Can athletes eat to podium and help save the planet?

FUNCTIONAL SPORTS NUTRITION - MARCH/APRIL 2020

Today’s food production systems play a significant role in degrading the environment and biodiversity. Simone do Carmo explores this topic and explains how athletes can engage in sustainable dietary choices and practices, that both support their health and performance, and also help shape our collective tomorrow.

It goes without saying that the degradation of natural resources and climate change are major concerns. Yet, people rarely realise that the food we eat plays a significant role. And this becomes a vicious cycle, as rises in temperature and sea levels caused by climate change threaten our food security.

But what does this have to do with athletes you may ask? Firstly, athletes eat more than the average person due to their higher energy demands. Secondly, their busy training, competition and travel schedules, coupled with the wide availability of packaged food products and bottled drinks, often cause them to make less environmentally conscious food choices. Thirdly, the protein guidelines perpetuated in sports nutrition, encourage athletes not only to consume more protein, but also to get that protein from animal-based sources since these are considered biologically more available than plant-based proteins. As practitioners in exercise science and sports nutrition, I believe we have a duty to promote healthy athletic diets that integrate sustainable dietary choices and practices to offset the burden on the environment. Meyer and Reguant-Costa wrote a paper eloquently discussing this topic (1).

Now this does not mean that we should all start promoting vegan diets for our athletic clients. Veganism isn’t as environmentally friendly as it’s often portrayed and isn’t even a prerequisite for ethical eating if an athlete goes vegan for animal welfare reasons. I aim to explore this controversial topic to try and find a healthy middle ground, that not only benefits an athlete’s health and performance, but also supports the environment and is conscious of animal welfare.

What is the link between food production and the environment?

Every item of food on our plates has a carbon footprint. Food production contributes 19 to 29 per cent towards all greenhouse gas emissions. And agriculture accounts for most of that figure by directly generating: (i) carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to run tractors and other machinery; (ii) nitrous oxide from using fertilisers; and (iii) methane from ruminants’ digestive systems and their manure (1, 2).

Besides these effects, food production requires large amounts of water and land, which diminishes reserves and increases deforestation. It also contributes towards global terrestrial acidification (lowering of soil pH) and causes eutrophication, a process that increases the nutrient load to estuaries and coastal waters, leading to algal blooms and oxygen depletion in waters, and ultimately the degradation of natural ecosystems (1, 2).

We should also not forget gas emissions from food storage, packaging, distribution, transport and consumer waste – although smaller than direct emissions from agriculture, these still have a meaningful effect. In fact, food waste is thought to account for 25 per cent of landfill-generated methane (1).

Meat and dairy production have become intensively industrialised to meet the rising demand for food, greatly neglecting the health and wellbeing of many animals, and causing suffering and unnecessary harm. Because of animal cruelty and the fact that most gas emissions come from ruminants, many people believe that a plant-based approach is the way to go. Indeed, the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 (150,000 people) and 2019 (600,000 people) according to The Vegan Society (3).

But industrial plant-based food production also burdens the environment and affects smaller animals. For example, the intensive practice of growing the same crop on the same plot of land year after year (monocropping) and using common farming techniques, such as applying pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, degrades soil over time. It depletes the soil of nutrients, alters its microbial diversity and promotes significant erosion (4). This can cause the death of soil and deprive other species, such as smaller mammals, birds and reptiles of life – a different form of harm, but harm nonetheless. Since the soil nutrient quality is affected, the nutritional quality in food also suffers, with potential nutrient losses of up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, certain plant-based food production, such as rice, also contributes towards methane

Today’s production, albeit to a lesser extent (1). And if everyone wanted to meet their nutritional needs by plants only, arable land would need to be far more intensively farmed than is currently the case.

So, what is the solution for food production?

There is no doubt that we should all eat less meat, but giving it up entirely isn’t the solution either. We need a complete change in the way we farm and produce food.

We must recognise the importance of livestock and their role in the carbon cycle. Their manure and the way they graze can accelerate soil regeneration, which also promotes biodiversity – for example, by gradually removing plant material that allows smaller mobile species to move freely and preventing scrub encroachment. The crucial thing is to encourage organic and biodiverse systems, and to keep livestock in low numbers to prevent overgrazing (5). This guarantees that animals lead a happier and healthier life, which ultimately benefits us because their pasture-fed meat is more nourishing. It has been shown that pasture-fed meat is richer in omega-3s, beta-carotene, conjugated linoleic acid, and other nutrients that are important for our health, evidenced by a decrease in several inflammatory markers when compared to conventionally farmed meat (6).

We also need to ditch monocropping and promote both integrated and traditional rotational systems that work with nature. Methane emissions are lower in biodiverse pasture systems that include wild plants because of their fumaric acid content. This compound has been shown to reduce methane emissions in lambs by 70 per cent when added to their diet (7). Implementing crop rotation has resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions, while having a positive effect on crop yields (8). And intercropping (defined as the growth of more than one crop species in a field) has impacted soil microbial functionalities, resulting in greater crop yields (9). In other words, we can still produce what we need (or more) by adopting an approach that cares for the environment and animal life.

How does this all translate onto an athlete’s plate?

First and foremost, we should encourage athletes to think about the sourcing of their food, be that meat or plants. Rather than just telling athletes to eat less meat and incorporate more plants, we should encourage them to actively choose foods that originate from sustainable farming practices, protect biodiversity, and have a lower environmental impact. I believe this will be a more successful approach, as they’ll feel invested in the process, and one that is healthier for them in the long run. As practitioners, we should inform athletes about their local farm or food market that engages in organic or other innovative agricultural practices to cultivate the connection between health and sustainability. Plus, by shopping locally, athletes would also support their community and reduce their transport footprint.

In this way, we can still support an athlete’s high protein demands by incorporating some good-quality, pasture-fed animal-based foods in their diets with a greater variety of plant-based protein sources (pulses, nuts, seeds and grains) to support their dietary needs and overall health. Exact amounts will differ between individuals (some people don’t digest plant-based protein sources very well), but a good rule of thumb is to cut one-third of their animal-based protein and replace it with plant-based protein to ensure a more balanced approach (1).

We can take this a step further and consider essential amino acids. Some argue that it is unnecessary to combine plant-based protein sources in a meal if essential amino acids are accumulated during the day (1). However, since they have higher nutrient demands than the average person, I think athletes would benefit from looking at each meal as an opportunity to maximise it nutritionally by consuming a combination of plant-based protein sources. Protein combining is particularly important if an athlete eats a plant-based meal with no animal protein. Plus, there is no harm, so why not?

Eating just fish for omega-3s also raises concerns about diminishing wild fish supplies and the rising need for aquacultures. Over 50 per cent of all fish consumed globally come from aquacultures, which generally release lower greenhouse gases than wild fisheries. Yet there are pressing concerns about the feed used in aquacultures. For example, vegetable oils used in salmon feed have been shown to increase the proportion of poor-quality omega-6s and decrease omega-3s – alarming for both fish and human health. Microalgae could be a more sustainable dietary solution for athletes because they would still benefit from eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Also, eating wild fish that are seasonally available, rather than choosing only fish they want to eat, is a more sustainable alternative (1).

We could also raise the stakes a notch, encouraging athletes to look at insects as the next sustainable protein source. Insects are as nutritious as other animal protein, but their greenhouse gas emission rate is much lower due to their reduced water and feed requirements (1). And they are a convenient option for busy athletes; insect powder can be incorporated easily into a post-exercise smoothie or bar. But performance research on their effectiveness is lacking, especially compared to whey protein, still considered the gold-standard protein source in sports nutrition.

The gold standard perhaps, but dairy production is also not blameless when it comes to the environment. Since milk produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than cheese and yoghurts, which both require additional processing (processing generally equates to more energy use), athletes are encouraged to focus on milk rich in whey from pasture-fed animals as a post-exercise option. Natural yoghurts and kefir are rich in probiotics, so we wouldn’t want to exclude them from an athlete’s diet. But these should be natural options, containing beneficial bacteria from fermentation to support gut health, and not processed with additional sugars, flavours and other additives. In short, athletes can be more mindful of their dairy intake and if they were to reduce one particular type, I would recommend commercial cheeses in this context because of its greater greenhouse gas emissions (1).

Lastly, we need to educate athletes about food waste, and the polluting effect of plastics on our environment and food chain – that starts with helping athletes to plan ahead for the week, providing input on their shopping, cooking and storage of food. And we can look at strategies to minimise plastic usage, such as swapping their plastic shake bottle for a plastic-free one, reducing their consumption of plastic-packaged foods, or using reusable bags when they go shopping.

Closing remarks

I’d like to finish by sharing a quote by Sir David Attenborough: “We are dependent on the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food we eat. But it’s even more than that. We also depend on it for our sanity and sense of proportion. We can’t be radical enough!”

We do need a radical change. We need to farm and eat like the world depends on it. Because it does. From animals to plants, we must recognise that our dietary choices have the power to either protect or damage the environment, biodiversity and our health. And athletes can help promote this message – they are role models of society and often great spokespeople. There’s nothing more powerful than a young person looking up to their favourite athlete and imagining themselves being on the podium one day. If we can engage athletes in environmental sustainability and get them to share their experiences, this can only have a positive downstream effect on wider society.

References

  1. Meyer N & Reguant-Costa A (2017). Eat as if you could save the planet and win! Sustainability integration into nutrition for exercise and sport. Nutrients. 9(4):412.
  2. Vermeulen SJ et al (2012) Climate change and food systems. Annu Rev Environ Resour. 37:195–222.
  3. The Vegan Society. Statistics (n.d.). Available at: <https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics> (Accessed December 2019).
  4. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. Rotations and Soil Organic Matter Levels (n.d.). Available at: <https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition/ Text-Version/Crop-Rotations/Rotations-and-Soil-Organic-MatterLevels> (Accessed December 2019).
  5. Schieltz JM & Rubenstein DI (2016). Evidence based review: positive versus negative effects of livestock grazing on wildlife. What do we really know? Environ Res Lett. 11(11).
  6. Haskins C et al (2018). Meat, eggs, full-fat dairy, and nutritional boogeymen: Does the way in which animals are raised affect health differently in humans. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 59(17):2709-2719.
  7. Wallace RJ et al (2006). Encapsulated fumaric acid as a means of decreasing ruminal methane emissions. Int Congr. 1293:148-151.
  8. Behnke GD et al (2018). Long-term crop rotation and tillage effects on soil greenhouse gas emissions and crop production in Illionois, USA. Agr Ecosyst Environ. 261:62-70.
  9. Wahbi S et al (2016). Impact of wheat/faba bean mixed cropping or rotation systems on soil microbial functionalities. Front Plant Sci. 7:1364.