“Well, maybe you do just eat a little bit too much…” said Laura’s (very tactfully!) when I queried her, slightly exasperatedly about my diet once I’d fiddled around with it in Laura’s Larder – the new online tool about healthy and sustainable diets launched today at CAT. The idea is, you fill in what you might eat during a week and then it tells you the nutritional values of your diet – kilocalorie (energy), protein, fats, salts and micronutrients; and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from what you eat – ‘farm to fork’. Then, you can make changes to try to make your diet healthier, and lower in emissions.
We got a sneak preview as staff here at CAT and I’d had a bit of time to play around with it, but was having trouble ticking the ‘daily kilocalories’ box. It kept on telling me, basically, that I was eating too much.
I started out being quite honest about what I eat. I hadn’t kept a diary of my diet, but I thought about what I’d usually eat for breakfast every day, and filled in some examples of the things I might eat for lunch and dinner, together with the additional snack I have when I get home from work and the multiple cups of coffee that I sprinkle through mid-mornings. I’d included a few drinks of an evening (that I was right in suspecting was too many!), a bit of chocolate here and a portion of chips there. I generally eat pretty large portions of food, and I probably have a fry-up once on a weekend, and a (pretty disgustingly giant, but home-cooked, so obviously more healthy!) sunday roast.
Having worked on the Zero Carbon Britain project here at CAT for a couple of years, the first thing I noticed was that the GHG emissions from my diet were pretty high. I have picked up a couple of things whilst working with Laura herself on the food and diets model in Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future, and on the new report linking diets, GHG emissions and land use: People, Plate and Planet.
I knew that the culprit was probably cheddar cheese. I don’t eat meat (red meat is especially high in emissions), but I do like cheese. Since beef and milk come from the same animals (something I, surprisingly, had not thought about ever before in my life!), I knew that the GHG emissions from hard cheeses like this were almost as bad as those from the meat. So, I started cutting out some cheese from my ‘diet’ in the application (I have been trying to do this in real life too). But I was surprised about the next two things that contributed to my high GHG score – cider (yes, I drink too much of it), and broccoli. Broccoli?! “But its a nice green vegetable, and my mum always used to encourage me to eat it when I was little – its good for you!”, I exclaimed at my computer screen. I challenged Laura: “Yes, I double-checked that one too. All the sources agree. They must have to use lots of fertilisers to grow brassicas like that.” Down went the broccoli. Thankfully, I could replace it with kale – one of my favourite greens that happens to be low in GHG emissions as well. Excellent! I also decreased the cider intake, but thought I’d best leave in a pint or two for a sunny day.
With my GHG emissions now looking more ‘healthy’, I moved onto the next big issue: my energy (kilocalorie) intake was too high. And here is where I got stuck. I tried a few things: I replaced all my portion sizes with small ones, and cut out the chocolate and chips. I thought I’d be onto a winner. Not so. Next I ditched the second slice of toast for breakfast and the afternoon snack. Still no luck. I looked at the resulting overall weekly diet I’d ended up with: significantly reduced, yet still tasty and varied. The rest of my health indicators looked fine – it was a pretty rounded diet. In terms of micronutrients, I had to swap a couple of doses of peanut butter and jam for ‘yeast extract’ for breakfast to get my vitamin B12 up; and found out that I probably needed to eat a bit of seaweed every week to get some iodine without upping my salt intake too significantly, but everything else looked tickety-boo. I had a healthy diet. Apart from those kilocalories.
“I don’t know what to do Laura,” I said. “Unless I start cutting out whole meals – which I am fundamentally against! – I can’t see where I can make any more reductions, and I’m still eating too much.” When I’d told friends this result, they had suggested, encouragingly, that perhaps it was okay because I was a fairly active person and so maybe I needed the extra energy. “This is true,” Laura said “if you are physically active, you may require more in terms of energy than what is recommended in Laura’s Larder”. I do cycle to and from work (most days), but it is only a couple of miles. The recommendations, Laura explained, are based on a sedentary lifestyle (office job, driving to work etc), so I could have a little bit of wiggle room here, but I wasn’t convinced I did enough to get out of this one that easily.
Laura had a quick skim over my ‘model’ diet. “It looks like you eat pretty well!” she said, knowing I’d already made modifications. We went through it together and tried an experiment: first we took out the fry-up, and replaced it with a more normal breakfast. Tick! Kilocalorie intake all good. Then we put the fry-up back in, but took out the sunday lunch, and replaced it with some dahl and rice. Tick! Kilocalorie intake all good. In fact, if I took out either of these meals, I could add a few more things back into my diet – brie on toast for breakfast once a week (yum!), extra glass of wine here and there (fantastic!) and still eat a diet that was healthy, low in GHG emissions and (I thought) pretty tasty looking. Success!
Although I know I won’t be following the diet I ended up with to the letter (there’s no way I’m that organised!), there are a few good things I have already started doing: eating only either a fry-up or a sunday roast, generally eating less for each meal, re-thinking when I pick up some broccoli at the market, drinking less cider (thankfully, the sun doesn’t shine too much in Wales anyway), and having ‘yeast extract’ on my toast a couple more times a week. Now, I just need to find a way to sneak some seaweed into my weekly diet… Perhaps I can hide it in a stew? I’ll ask Mikhael, our excellent chef in the CAT restaurant.
Why not also read about the implications of what we eat on GHG emissions and land use, in our new report – People, Plate and Planet; also launched today.