Meat and the Environment

Eating red meat, we know, is unhealthy, and the process in which red meat is produced is unhealthy for the planet. Nevertheless, we as a society just keep on eating it. After all, with half a dozen fast food burger joints between the office and home, the temptation is constant and easily fulfilled.

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Many of us know the experience of driving past cattle yards. We roll up the windows, plug our noses, and try to hold our breath until the foul-smelling eyesore is out of sight.

However, an hour or so later, the kids in the back seat pipe up, “There’s a McDonald’s!” And yes, we’ve all succumbed.

The majority of Americans have taken a similar approach in their relationship with red meat. Eating red meat, we know, is unhealthy, and the process in which red meat is produced is unhealthy for the planet. Nevertheless, we as a society just keep on eating it. After all, with half a dozen fast food burger joints between the office and home, the temptation is constant and easily fulfilled.

Numerous studies, including two new large, recently published investigations by the National Institute of Health and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, have shown that, both as individuals and as a global society, we cannot afford to continue consuming red meat the way we are today.

Health risks

First, let’s take a look at the implications on our health as individuals. In 1995, NIH teamed up with the AARP to study the meat intake of 3.5 million AARP members. Ten years later, NIH analyzed the results and found that people eating the most red and processed meats (bacon, sausage, deli meat, ham, and hot dogs) were roughly 30% more likely to contract heart disease or cancer than those consuming the least. Those eating the least red meat consumed on average two-thirds of an ounce a day; those eating the most averaged about five ounces daily.

Other studies have noted a marked increase in the rates of colorectal cancer for those on the high end of red and processed meat consumption as well as possible increases in prostate, pancreatic, and breast cancer.

You need not go totally vegetarian

Can’t imagine life without red meat? That’s okay. Start a healthy new life by cutting down. Newly published data have found that cutting meat consumption by 30% would lead to “substantial health benefits.” The study, conducted by British and Australian researchers and published in The Lancet medical journal, found that a 30% reduction in saturated-fat-rich meat would cut the number of premature deaths from heart disease by about 17%.

In addition, consumption of white meat, such as chicken, and fish shows no correlation with an increase in heart disease or cancer. In fact, the omega-3 fats found in most fish may actually lower the risk of heart attack. So the next time you’re at the grocery store looking longingly at a ribeye steak, don’t despair. Just pick up a salmon filet instead.

Pritikin Program recommendations

Pritikin Program recommendations for red meat and other animal protein are the following:

  • No more than one serving of animal protein per day. Fish or mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels and scallops) are preferable over crustaceans (shrimp, crawfish, crab, and lobster) and lean white meat poultry, and choose crustaceans and lean poultry (white meat, skinless chicken and turkey) over lean red meat. A serving is about 3 ½ ounces cooked or the size of a deck of cards.
  • Optimally, limit crustaceans and poultry to no more than one serving per week and red meat to no more than one serving per month. If you prefer red meat weekly, substitute free-range, grass-fed bison in place of poultry.
  • Vegetarian options: For maximal cholesterol reduction, choose on most days legumes like beans, peas, and lentils or soy products like tofu instead of lean meat, fish, or poultry.

Meat and the Environment

Keeping your own body healthy and happy is a worthy goal in and of itself, but if you need a little more motivation, let’s take a look at what our current level of meat consumption is doing to our environment. According to the UN’s 2006 report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, “livestock in the United States are responsible for 55 percent of erosion, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of volume of antibiotics consumed, and for 32 percent of nitrogen load and 33 percent of phosphorous load into freshwater resources.”

In addition to destroying our land and our drinking water, livestock production worldwide is responsible for 18% of our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the emissions created from our planet’s entire transportation system.

To make matters worse, countries like China and India, which have experienced recent economic growth, are now seeing increases in their populations’ red meat consumption. At current levels, livestock production could increase 85% by 2030, and with two-thirds of the world’s population predicted to be living in water-stressed areas by 2025, we simply cannot continue to chow down on cow at the rate we are today.

The good news, the new Lancet study reported: A 30% reduction in the livestock production of major meat-eating nations would lead to a significant decrease in greenhouse emissions and bolster the overall environmental health of our world.

Bottom Line

It is certainly true that if we were to all become vegetarians today, both our bodies and our world would be much healthier. But we’re not going to eliminate McDonald’s and other red-meat havens anytime soon.

The new Lancet study, however, shows that significant but manageable cuts in our red meat intake can in fact provide major benefits both to our individual health and our planet’s.

Sure, the next steak you eat probably won’t melt the polar ice caps. But look at it this way: The next steak you don’t eat is one step closer to a healthier you and a healthier world.

  • Arch. Intern. Med. 169: 562, 2009.
  • Int. J. Cancer. 119: 2657, 2006.
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  • Arch. Intern. Med. 166: 2253, 2006.
  • The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 25 November 2009

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