A new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has determined that meat, eggs and milk are vital sources of much-needed nutrients, such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates, that aren’t easily found in plant-based foods.
The comprehensive study, which is based on data from more than 500 scientific papers and 240 policy documents, also stated that these nutrients are critical during key life stages, such as pregnancy and lactation, childhood, adolescence and older age.
“Nutrient needs of humans vary substantially over their life course. While there are a variety of dietary patterns that can meet those needs, foods that are rich in nutrients are a critical part of a healthy diet,” FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo and Chief Economist Máximo Torero Cullen wrote in a foreword to the report. “Terrestrial animal source foods provide energy and many essential nutrients, such as protein, fatty acids and several vitamins and minerals that are less common in other food types.”
Health benefits of eating animal source foods
Some of the crucial nutrients found in animal sources include:
- High-quality protein, which is necessary for increasing muscle mass
- Essential fatty-acids, which help with cognition, neurodevelopment and ant-iinflammatory processes
- Iron, which prevents iron deficiency anemia
- Calcium, which contributes to bone health
- Zinc, which supports vital functions in growth, development and immunity
- Selenium, which is anti-inflammatory and supports genome-level processes
- Vitamin B12 for neurodevelopment and cell formation
- Choline for growth, brain function and gene interactions
- Bioactive compounds such as carnitine, creatine and taurine that promote good health
However, not all meats are created equally. The study mentioned that eating even low levels of processed red meat, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and deli meats, can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease outcomes, including cardiovascular diseases and colorectal cancer.
Consuming unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, in moderate amounts (between 9 to 71 grams per day), carries minimal risk, but is generally considered safe as it pertains to chronic disease outcomes.
Additionally, the report noted that “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 bigger picture
Food from animal sources are deemed part of a healthy diet and can go a long way toward achieving FAO’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as reducing wasting among children under five years of age, low birthweight, anemia in women of reproductive age, and obesity and non-communicable diseases in adults.
In the report, Semedo and Cullen also wrote that the livestock sector “must contribute to addressing a range of challenges,” including environmental issues; herd management; animal health related issues; human-livestock related issues; and social issues.