Switching out the Svíčková: the potential health and environmental risks of traditional Czech cuisine


While delicious, Czech food is heavily reliant on meat and animal products. But as society gains more and more awareness about the health and environmental impacts, more support for restaurants purveying locally sourced or vegetarian options is growing.

We all know Czechs are proud of their cuisine, from goulash to the national dish “svíčková” or sirloin with cream sauce and dumplings. But the traditional Czech diet is based heavily around meat and animal products, posing both health and environmental risks. So what are the implications of eating the traditional Czech fare?

Registered Nutritional Therapist Blanka Judova has noted the health risks associated with traditional Czech food - with the impacts ranging from high blood pressure, to an increased risk of cancer.

“Meat based dishes and the sauces that come with them are often served with dumplings, and these kinds of dishes have no nutritional value, they don’t come with vegetables or any other sources of fibre.The Czech diet is also heavily reliant on smoked meats. These deli products like salami and sausages are quite damaging to health, they’re full of salt, sugar, preservatives and fats. Since they are smoked and heavily processed, these are the foods that contribute to and may increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and developing cancers. So the typical Czech diet in that sense is not the healthiest.”

Photo: Dáša Vaňková,  Czech Radio

While Blanka has observed that younger Czechs are more conscious and aware of the potential health risks of the traditional diet, older Czechs are more reluctant to make these changes, often sticking to the food they know and grew up with.

“Generally speaking, people are still sticking to the traditional Czech diet, especially in homes. The consumption of things like deli meats and bread rolls are everyday staples in Czech homes, sometimes up to three times a day. But it would be really good to reduce this to only once a day and start to be more conscious about the food choices you’re making.”

When it comes to changing the direction of food consumption, Blanka recommends eating the rainbow as a means to get a well-balanced diet, and reducing the consumption of animal products.

Illustrative photo: StockSnap,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“We say eat the rainbow, and it means eating many varieties of fruits and vegetables of all colours- purple, orange, yellow, and red. All these fruits and vegetables contain different pigments called phytochemicals, and all these phytochemicals have different functions in our bodies and protect our cells and DNA from damage, because they actually protect the plants from bacteria, insects, and sun damage. So they provide us with these benefits too, and our bodies can really benefit from these protections as well.”

In order to make small but impactful changes in our diets, Blanka recommends planning your food schedules ahead in order to account for more plant based days, and kicking your plain salads up a notch by adding more elements to them so they’re satisfying and filling. But remember to be patient with yourself, as shifting eating habits is not always easy.

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

“For example, go less on meat, and plan your menu ahead. You can enjoy your weekends, and then on Monday decide to base your meals around plant-based dishes like chickpea salads or lentil salads. It doesn't have to be just salad leaves to eat greens, you can really make them substantial and add fruits like oranges and apples or pomegranate seeds. Add lots of nuts and seeds for crunch, and also dressings are important. So do your research and find some good recipes for dressings, and if you dress it nicely it’s very delicious. But as I said, one small change at a time, because we’re creatures of habit, and it’s difficult to break habits.”

Toning down the consumption of traditional Czech foods may not only be better for your health, but it also has a positive impact on reducing your environmental footprint. PhD candidate Diana Kmeťková is researching healthy and sustainable diets at Charles University, and as she explains, cutting back on the consumption of meat and animal products can play a critical role in reducing our impact on the planet.

Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

“When we talk about the environmental consequences, one of the biggest goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We know that the production of meat is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions- for example cows. They emit methane during digestion, which is quite a potent greenhouse gas, even more than Co2. By reducing meat consumption, Czech society can reduce the amount of harmful gases going into the atmosphere. Other environmental impacts that might not be as well-known is water usage. Meat production requires a significant amount of water, from raising livestock to processing meat. Again, if we reduce the consumption of meat and fish, we can reduce the amount of water used in agriculture.”

Diana echoes a very similar sentiment to Blanka, you don’t necessarily need to completely switch over to a full vegetarian or vegan diet to make an impact. Small changes can be impactful, especially if we all take them.

Photo: Grooveland Designs,  Pexels

“It doesn’t have to be that people switch over to being vegetarians or vegans, that’s not the point. But one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental footprint is to eat less meat, or to choose high quality meat that is produced locally if we want to eat meat, this already has less of an environmental impact.”

Supporting restaurants that are consciously working to reduce their environmental footprint in their operations is another way Diana suggests people can take in their daily lives.

Fortunately, Prague is home to many fantastic vegetarian restaurants, Lehká Hlava, or Clear Head in English, is one of them. Manager of the restaurant Veronika Růžková says that Czechs are getting more and more used to vegetarian food that strays from the country's traditional cuisine.

“Usually, 70-80% of our customers are meat eaters, but they know that they can eat really nice, healthy food without any impact at our restaurant. So they are open to eating more vegetarian food, and I think it’s getting better here.”

Veronika says the openness to vegetarian food is not just reserved to the younger generation. She recounted a story about an older Czech gentleman who called to make a reservation for himself and his friends. So while we are creatures of habit, a glimmer of openness is visible.

“He was calling to make a reservation for him and his friends, and only one of them was a vegetarian. They were just open to coming here, even though they are typical Czechs with meat and the heavy Czech cuisine. It’s totally changed my mind about how I think about older people, because they are just open.”

When it comes to trying the fantastic food at Lehká Hlava- Veronika has some suggestions for what to try.

“From the starters, I would recommend the tofu foie-gras. It’s paté from smoked tofu made with miso and it’s served with fresh bread and cranberries, it’s my very favourite. Also the spinach chimney. It’s made with gratin potatoes, basil pesto, spinach cooked in coconut milk, and grilled goat cheese served with walnuts. These are my two favourite dishes from our restaurant, and they’re very unique and very special.”

So on your next night out, think about trying one of the city’s fantastic vegetarian spots, your health and our planet just might thank you for it.