To Meat Or Not To Meat, Scientists Still Aren’t Sure
The scientific findings around meat consumption and its impact on our health remain largely contradictory.
Just this month, an article was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded that current public health recommendations to eat less red and processed meat “isn’t backed by strong evidence”, and went on to make new recommendations suggesting that adults 18 years or older don’t need to monitor or limit their consumption of meat. Huh? Now I’m no scientist, but even I was shocked by that. What about Meat Free Monday?! What about the Vegans?! What about that story where 69,000 chicken strips had to be re-called after they were found to contain fragments of METAL?
In the article, scientists presented five papers, each a systematic review or meta-analysis of past studies. So the researchers didn’t collect any new data, they simply analysed the data that already existed and concluded that the evidence in favour of eliminating meat from our diets is too weak. These types of papers are really common in nutrition – the controversial study that came out earlier this year claiming eggs are bad for you also fell into this category; they simply looked at the old data and arrived at a new conclusion. What’s even more confusing is that those same researchers who said the data wasn’t strong enough, still pointed out a clear association between red-meat consumption and an increased risk for chronic disease – the researchers aren’t denying this correlation, they’re simply saying it’s pretty small: “For example the risk ratio between smoking and lung cancer is a 12, whereas the risk ratio between red meat and heart disease is about one and two-tenths.”
But here’s the thing: meat is complicated. Because it isn’t just impacting human health – it greatly impacts planetary health too. It’s not just affecting an individual’s chance of a heart attack, but climate, agriculture and wildlife habitat, which is why I find it so worrying that there still isn’t much consensus on the topic. Grazing land makes up one quarter of the Earth’s total land mass, and looking after that land is crucial for our environment, for protecting animals and endangered species, for the livelihood of farmers and for food security in a growing population. One study revealed that making a McDonald’s quarter pounder produces the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving your car for over 8 kilometres. Yuck.
However there’s a growing body of research that shows eating sustainably-farmed beef could actually be good for the environment. When managed properly, on the right grasslands, beef production can be regenerative, rather than degenerative – and in some cases even negate the negative environmental impacts. Animals that graze in these areas have been found to provide valuable eco-system services like nutrient cycling and improving soil structure, and an increasing number of studies show that regeneratively grazed cattle can even create a “net emissions sink” by draining more carbon into the soil than the methane produced by the cows. Sadly, the majority of beef isn’t raised on regenerative grasslands because it creates a lot more work for farmers (they have to move the livestock through different pastures all the time to ensure they’ve got grass to graze, as well as monitor pasture health etc). So if we want to live in a world where our beef is sustainable then we need to consciously buy from and support farms engaging in these practices. We also need to demand traceability in our supply chains and luckily there are amazing new social ventures like Pasture Map, co-founded by millennial Christine Su, which allow every pasture that an animal has spent time on to be traced as well as rewarding farmers for their regenerative practices.
But back to those dietary guidelines. What does a healthy diet actually look like? Well, as with all dietary advice, the truth lies somewhere in the grey area. When you release guidelines that encourage people to eat less red meat, they will invariably replace that meat with something else. If they replace it with an abundance of vegetables, they’re likely to see an improvement in their overall health. However if they replace that meat with processed grains, soy and gluten, they’re likely going to be worse off than if they’d just stuck with the beef. Or at least that’s how I think about it.
These findings shouldn’t be a Yes or a No to meat all-together, but rather an encouragement to consume a much wider variety of food, which in turn would lead to a reduction in meat consumption anyway. It seems to me that the most simple, affordable and sustainable guideline for wellbeing should be: Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.