Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

‘Meat or wheat for the next millennium?’ Plenary Lecture

Animal v. plant foods in human diets and health: is the historical record unequivocal?

Marion Nestlea1 c1

a1 Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University, 35 W. 4th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10012–1172, USA


An ideal diet is one that promotes optimal health and longevity. Throughout history, human societies have developed varieties of dietary patterns based on available food plants and animals that successfully supported growth and reproduction. As economies changed from scarcity to abundance, principal diet-related diseases have shifted from nutrient deficiencies to chronic diseases related to dietary excesses. This shift has led to increasing scientific consensus that eating more plant foods but fewer animal foods would best promote health. This consensus is based on research relating dietary factors to chronic disease risks, and to observations of exceptionally low chronic disease rates among people consuming vegetarian, Mediterranean and Asian diets. One challenge to this consensus is the idea that palaeolithic man consumed more meat than currently recommended, and that this pattern is genetically determined. If such exists, a genetic basis for ideal proportions of plant or animal foods is difficult to determine; hominoid primates are largely vegetarian, current hunter—gatherer groups rely on foods that can be obtained most conveniently, and the archeological record is insufficient to determine whether plants or animals predominated. Most evidence suggests that a shift to largely plant-based diets would reduce chronic disease risks among industrialized and rapidly industrializing populations. To accomplish this shift, it will be necessary to overcome market-place barriers and to develop new policies that will encourage greater consump-tion of fruits, vegetables and grains as a means to promote public health.


c1 *Corresponding author: Professor Marion Nestle, fax +1 212 995 4194, email