Is It Healthier To Eat Less Meat?
In October the meat industry fell under scrutiny as climate experts warned that we may need to drastically reduce our consumption of meat in order to tackle carbon emissions and protect the environment.
People seem to be listening too, as veganism is now one of the fastest growing movements in the UK, with approximately 542,000 participants having sworn off meat and dairy completely. Is this complete boycott the right path? Are there any benefits to a meat-free diet? Well, we are going to take a more in-depth look at how giving up meat can impact your health and a few misconceptions that surround a vegan diet.
Red meat consumption is linked to higher rates of heart disease
When people think of red meat, they usually think of steak, mince and other sources of beef which, while not inaccurate, ignores other meats such as pork and lamb which also fall under this category. Red meat can be a source of iron and vitamin B12, a nutrient that vegans often struggle to find from a plant sources, but studies have shown that diets rich in red meat can raise your risk of heart disease. A more recent study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio found that a compound contained in red meat, L-carnitine, could interact with your gut bacteria, raising your levels of TMAO, or trimethylamine N-oxide which are linked to the plaques that block arteries.1
My thoughts: The NHS recommends that we eat no more than 70g of red meat a day which roughly equates to a couple of thinly cut slices of beef; to put things even more into perspective, around one pork sausage contains 50g and one slice of ham is around 25g.2 Unfortunately, here in the UK we don’t usually stick to this guideline and that is where problems can occur. It's worth bearing in mind that you can easily source, with some research, vitmain b12 and iron in many plant sources, and of course supplements. We have lots here at Greenlife.
2. Meat can raise your cholesterol levels
Meat is undeniably associated with higher cholesterol levels as red meat, poultry and milk all contain saturated fats which can drive up cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease. Plant-based sources of protein don’t have this content of saturated fats, instead containing a higher volume of unsaturated fats.
Studies have examined whether or not a vegan or vegetarian diet could lower cholesterol levels and, thus far, the results have varied but have been largely positive. One study found that a vegan diet could potentially reduce cholesterol levels by 35% but this was limited to a smaller group of participants.3 A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked at 11 prior studies, examining how a meat-free diet could affect cholesterol levels of people with heart disease or risk factors, and found that total cholesterol was reduced by 13.9mg.4 A smaller, but not inconsiderable, amount!
My thoughts: High cholesterol is a huge problem here in the UK so the role of meat is definitely worth considering. When people tend to think of the negative repercussions of meat, red meat is usually in the forefront but here poultry and dairy also have to take some of the blame. From our tea and coffee to our cereal. Combine this with our meat intake and it’s understandable why our consumption of animal-based foods is being linked to this particular issue.
3. Meat is associated with high levels of inflammation
Inflammation is believed to be behind a number of health conditions, from heart disease to allergies to digestive problems, and scientists are starting to pay more attention to our inflammation levels. Refined sugars and carbohydrates are the usual suspects but fatty meats can again play a role; for example, inflammation usually occurs as part of our immune response. When our immune system recognises a potentially harmful substance or pathogen, it will trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals. In the case of meat, it contains pro-inflammatory mediators such as arachidonic acid which can encourage inflammation, affecting your gut health and other areas of your body.
My thoughts: Plant-based foods contain more anti-inflammatory nutrients and compounds which is why they’re often recommended as part of a diet to counteract inflammation. Animal by-products, on the other hand, often have the opposite effect so, if you do want to eat meat, it’s important to bear this in mind.
4. Meat can increase your risk of developing type-2 diabetes
When it comes to type-2 diabetes this is something you probably instinctively link to sugar consumption, and for good reason! Scientists are starting to find that there could be an association with meat too. The University of Eastern Finland, for example, analysed the diets of over 2,300 men between the ages of 42-60, none of whom displayed diabetic symptoms. This analysis was followed up 19 years later, where 432 of the volunteers had developed diabetes. It was found that those who ate more animal protein compared to plant protein had a 35% greater risk of getting diabetes.5 But how could this be? Well, most forms of meat might not contain sugar but they do contain sodium and nitrites, both of which can increase your blood pressure, upset your pancreatic function and cause insulin resistance.
My thoughts: Processed meats such as sausages, smoked ham, pepperoni, salami etc. are notorious for having extremely high levels of sodium. That’s why, if you are worried about your meat intake, I’d recommend cutting these particular varieties out of your diet – they usually offer little in the way of nutritional value and could end up doing more harm than good.
5. Meat contains extra hormones and chemicals
One of the big problems with the farming industry is its reliance on pesticides and other artificial chemicals to maintain their crops and even their livestock. If the animal that your meat is derived from is grazing on grains that is saturated with these chemicals, then they may then still be present in your meat. It’s also worth noting that many farmers expose their animals to antibiotics – a huge issue as these antibiotics can then go on to increase our own immunity to these types of drugs, making us more vulnerable to illnesses that could otherwise have been treated.
My thoughts: In recent years, regulations have tightened when it comes to the volume and type of products that farmers can use on their livestock; however, if you really want to avoid these chemicals, buying organically would be the best option – even plant-based crops can be exposed to pesticides and artificial toxins so veganism and vegetarianism are not a guarantee that you would avoid these! Not only are the livestock generally treated better on organic farms, you’ll also avoid many of the pesticides and antibiotics used in intensive farming, regardless of whether it’s meat, vegetables or even fruit!
Can you lose weight by not eating meat?
One of the biggest benefits associated with a meat-free diet is a smaller waistline, as most people immediately assume that veganism or vegetarianism equates to a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If done properly, a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet can result in some weight loss; however, the key word here is healthy. It’s still possible to give up meat and eat unhealthily.
Sugar and salt, for example, are not unique to a meat-based diet. You can find them in plenty of vegan-friendly cakes and pastries while meat-free alternatives such as burgers and mince are often contain some sodium, additives and E-numbers. The key to losing weight and maintaining a healthy diet, regardless of whether or not you eat meat, is still moderation and variation I’m afraid.
How can eating less meat affect the environment?
Meat might be making headlines for how it’s affecting our health but, as I mentioned earlier, more and more environmentalists are starting to voice their concerns for how the meat industry could be impacting our environment. Intensive farming, for example, has been historically linked to high levels of pollution while carbon emissions from the meat industry are becoming a real concern for climate experts. Veganism is being touted as a leading way to help stave off climate change but is this really true?
Veganism, it turns out, isn’t 100% environmentally-friendly either. Vegan cakes, crisps and burgers still come in various forms of plastic and cardboard packaging. There’s also the production angle you have to consider too – growing the almonds for non-dairy substitutes such as almond milk.
So, veganism is by no means devoid of having an environmental impact and, while it certainly doesn’t match the meat industries impact, one can imagine that as the demand for vegan-friendly substitutes and alternatives increases, this will have an affect. When it comes to the environment, everyone could certainly be doing more to minimalise the consequences of their diet, either by choose more sustainable, organic options or by recycling and encouraging retailers to invest in more planet-friendly packaging.