Moderate Meat for Personal and Planetary Health

Healthnotes Newswire (April 16, 2009)—A newly released study confirms the conventional wisdom that a diet that focuses more on fish, chicken, and turkey is better for health, and that red and processed meats are best enjoyed in moderation. In an accompanying editorial to this study, noted health expert Dr. Barry Popkin gives us one more reason to plan fish and chicken dinners and cut back on meat: the future well-being of our planet may depend on it.

Meat matters

The latest results on the meat-mortality (death) connection come out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP Diet and Health Study, for which researchers collected and analyzed diet information from 545,653 men and women, ages 50 to 71 years. After following the group for ten years, the researchers discovered that regularly eating red (beef and pork) and processed meat (bacon, ham, sausage, lunch meat, hot dogs, and smoked meat) significantly increased mortality. The researchers looked at grams of meat eaten per 1,000 calories and found:

(1) Compared with men and women eating 10 or fewer grams of red meat per 1,000 calories, those eating 63 or more grams of red meat per 1,000 calories had, respectively:

• 31% and 36% higher risk of overall death

• 22% and 20% higher risk of dying of cancer

• 27% and 50% higher risk of dying of heart disease

(2) Compared with men and women eating 2 or fewer grams of processed meat per 1,000 calories, those eating 23 or more grams of processed meat per 1,000 calories had, respectively:

• 16% and 25% higher risk of death

• 12% and 11% higher risk of dying of cancer

• 9% and 38% higher risk of dying of heart disease

Eating white meat, including fish, chicken, and turkey was not associated with increased risk of death from any cause.

By the numbers

To put these results in perspective, consider a 2,000 calorie per day intake typical for a healthy, average-sized woman. At 63 grams of red meat per 1,000 calories, a person would consume about 126 grams, or roughly 4 to 5 ounces of red meat per day.

A 3-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. By simply eating a roast beef sandwich at lunch and a burger or steak for dinner, a person easily exceeds the red meat intake demonstrated to increase all-cause risk of death and death from heart disease and cancer specifically.

Promoting planetary health

In addition to the personal health risks associated with meat eating are clear risks to the planet. Raising animals for food puts extraordinary strain on planetary resources. In the accompanying editorial, Dr. Popkin points out that in the US, livestock production accounts for 55% of erosion, 37% of pesticide use, 50% of antibiotics use, and a third of damaging nitrogen and phosphorus discharges to surface water. An estimated 18% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock production, and animal food production requires 2 to 5 times the water necessary to produce crops of similar caloric value.

Eating ecologically

What’s a health-conscious, eco-savvy person to do? You don’t need to become a vegetarian to address these issues. Simply cutting back on the amount of meat you eat will do wonders for your own and the planet’s health:

• Make one night a week vegetarian dinner night and try new and different foods and recipes.

• Substitute plant proteins, such as beans, for meat. Try bean soups, burritos, chili, and pasta dishes for variety.

• Go for ethnic fare. Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Mexican cuisines offer a wide variety of delicious vegetarian dishes.

• Don’t sweat the protein. Many worry that without meat they will come up short on protein, but this simply isn’t true. Most people get far more protein than they need and skipping meat for a meal or a day will not put you at risk for protein deficiency.

(Arch Intern Med 2009;169:562–71; Arch Intern Med 2009;169:543–5)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.