Meatless Monday has a beef with meat

11/05/2015

For every burger skipped, you can save enough water to drink for the next three years. For every burger skipped, you can save enough energy to charge your phone for 4.5 years. 

 

These surprising statements come from Meatless Monday, a movement started by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to promote health and the environment. Meatless Monday has spread to many industrialized countries. In poorer parts of the world, many days may be meatless.

The October issue of the Nutrition Action Health Letter has a lead article about beef and why we should be eating less of it and other red meats. Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard, makes some salient points about why reducing red meat consumption could benefit your health.

Eating red meat is associated with health risks, like dying prematurely. This risk is 37 percent higher in men who ate two servings of red meat a day compared to those who ate two servings a week. Red meat was related to a high risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Red meat consumption during adolescence is related to the risk of breast cancer.

There is also a heightened risk of cancer in general. Though smoking is the greatest risk factor, it is followed by being overweight, which can be exacerbated by red meat consumption. Yet red meat itself is a risk factor, even after removing its effect on weight. 

The widespread use of antibiotics in cattle production is also an important issue to consider. Most livestock animals (except those grown by organic farmers) have been fed antibiotics for growth enhancement, not just disease treatment. This has led to antibiotic resistance, affecting everyone who gets an infection, including people who do not eat meat. Resistant bacteria have spread widely in the environment.   

There are environmental issues as well. Cattle produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Per cow, grass-fed cattle are equally bad for producing greenhouse gases, because they live a longer time. If we stopped feeding grain to cattle, the environment would be greatly improved. Huge amounts of water are needed to grow grain for cattle, and manure runoff from feedlots is an unsolved problem. The vast monocultures of grain and soy to feed animals, and also to produce ethanol and high fructose corn syrup, are seriously threatening biodiversity.

There are other sources of protein out there. Plant sources include nuts and beans, and there is a small amount of protein in whole grains. Poultry has not been linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease stroke or diabetes. Fish often contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Yogurt is the healthiest dairy food, probably because of its effect on microbes in the gut (our microbiome).

The Culinary Institute of America is working on popularizing menus with less red meat and more recipes from other cultures using beans. Burgers made with vegetables, fish and poultry are becoming more widespread.

I recommend that we all investigate Meatless Monday. Reduce your red meat intake; you will be protecting your health and  reducing greenhouse gasses and water use. Support your local farmers and enjoy their beans and eggs, as well as their vegetables. Subscribe to Nutrition Action Health Letter, published by Center for Science in the Public Interest. You will be inspired.