By Dr. Vanessa Woods
(Irish Examiner, 9 November 2015)
In Ireland, people are living longer and with the demise of the Celtic Tiger, many people are having to work past pensionable age. Whether you hope to relax and enjoy the later chapters of your life, or continue working, you need to be fit and healthy. Our health is our most valuable asset and investing in it, is the best investment we can make. Food is the fuel for our bodies and a good balanced diet and some exercise are essential for good health. We hear a lot about the benefits of grass-fed produce in Ireland. We also hear about how the food that comes from grass-fed animals has a unique flavour, colour and taste and why it allows Irish produce to be in huge demand across the globe. However, does the consumer really know what it is about grass-fed produce that is so special and unique?
Some 80% of Ireland is covered in grass and our cattle graze this grass for up to 300 days each year. It is only during the colder winter period, when the grass stops growing, that our animals are housed. When they are housed, the main feed offered is grass silage, with some meal. As such, the food that comes from Irish cattle and sheep is said to be predominantly produced from grass. If we compare grass-fed meat for example, to grain-fed meat, research shows that grass-fed meat has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA. Meat contains a mixture of fatty acids in the fat, and many of these are considered healthy fats. As such, eating grass-fed produce can contribute to our requirement for these ‘essential’ fatty acids. Furthermore, grass-fed produce is also rich in beta-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A is required for growth and development in humans, the maintenance of our immune system and good vision.
Grass-fed meat and butter has a unique colour, flavour and appearance due to beta-carotene coming from the grass. This is why Irish butter, such as the famous Kerrygold, has a yellow colour, compared to a more white coloured butter that you might find in other countries, where the cows are not pasture-fed. Another important nutrient that we all need in our diet is Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. Research has shown that grass-fed animals have higher levels of Vitamin E compared to grain-fed animals. The next time you eat Irish butter, admire the colour and flavour and know why it has this unique colour and taste. When you next eat grass-fed Irish meat or dairy, you will know why we are so fortunate to have this unique product on our doorstep, because our grass-fed food is natural and special and this is why it is in demand all over the world.
The value of good wholesome Irish food does not stop there. As we get older, we lose muscle mass and we are not as robust, explaining how we may notice that our parents become smaller as they age.
This muscle loss is a natural phenomenon known as Sarcopenia and it is thought to affect 30% of individuals over 60 years old and more than 50% of those over 80 years old. It contributes to frailty and loss of independence and increases the risk of falls and fractures, thereby threatening healthy ageing. Sarcopenia is more commonly seen in people who do not perform regular exercise and in those who do not consume adequate levels of high quality protein in their diet. The balance between the rate of muscle protein synthesis (growth) and muscle protein breakdown (loss) in our body determines whether we gain, maintain, or lose muscle in response to many factors such as exercise, nutrition and disease.
Many studies have shown that older people can increase their muscle mass with regular physical activity, especially resistance-based strength exercise. Numerous studies have also shown the ability of high quality protein to stimulate muscle growth and to reduce muscle loss in ageing people. Furthermore, consuming 20-30g protein during each meal can also maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis in younger people and some studies show that an additional 20% may be required to deliver this effect in older people. Recent studies highlight the importance of ingesting a sufficient amount of protein with every meal, as opposed to the common pattern in the Western diet, where little protein is eaten at breakfast and lunch and a lot is eaten at dinner.
Combined with exercise, an even distribution of 20-30g protein at each meal is thought to be optimal for developing or maintaining muscle and contributing to healthy ageing. In total, the average middle-aged adult should be aiming for 80-100g protein per day. Beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products are all quality protein sources that contain essential amino acids (building blocks for protein), the body needs to build and repair muscle and manage or delay the onset of Sarcopenia. Many people only start to pay attention to diet and exercise after they have a health scare, but prevention is much better than cure.
Our health is our most valuable asset and a healthy balanced diet is essential.