From nutrition to food politics, all things edible have become a hot topic. Blogs, newspapers and even Pinterest reflect the variety of strong opinions on what we should eat, including factors such as ethics and location/sourcing. Should we be eating local? organic? raw? vegetarian? vegan? gluten-free? When it comes to keeping both environmental values and health goals in mind, one question in particular enters the debate – Should we be eating meat?
There are more and more people that are choosing to reduce their meat consumption, whether by participating in Meatless Mondays or making the full shift to veganism. So the question bears asking, how much does eating meat really affect us? Let’s take a look at some of the most common points in this debate:
The higher fat content in meat (and especially higher levels of saturated fat) is associated with many health problems. These health concerns include high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol levels. Monitoring your fat intake is a common practice, but how animal fat plays into this is certainly a topic of contention, and many argue the health benefits of meat and animal fat.
Fibre, Fruits and Vegetables
If meat is a lower (or non-existent) proportion of your diet then by necessity there will be more of the other food groups. In theory this means more fruits, vegetables, and grains, which is associated with lower risk of several types of cancer, healthier skin, and improved digestion among other things. The flaw in this argument is that potato chips, soft drinks and donuts are also all meat-free. I have met vegetarians who virtually live on white carbs and dairy (cheese pizza anyone?) and carnivores who eat a beautiful variety of vegetables and whole grains with a small side of meat. The debate still comes down to a matter of good choices. However, it can be argued that people who are consciously choosing to eat less meat are also more likely to let health guide their food choices. In this way, eating less meat is likely to mean more vegetables.
Toxins and Chemicals
Much of the meat consumed in our country contains chemicals and by-products used on animals (during their lives as well as during processing). While there is a lot of mixed information and opinions on the level of harm this causes on the human body, for a moment let’s assume that there is at least some negative affect. Does a vegetarian or vegan diet inherently contain less toxins? With the increase of meat-free diets, there is an onslaught of “new” products, from soy cheese slices to tofurky. Processed foods are there if you want them, no matter your dietary values. But let’s step back a minute. Not all meat is created equal. Meat sourcing is now a topic of public discourse, and knowing where your burger once roamed is even considered a right by some. Hormone and antibiotic free meats are available at speciality stores, local farms and markets, and even in my neighbourhood No Frills. So as far as chemicals go, there are choices to make, whether meat is on your plate or not.
This argument centres around the waste produced by livestock farms, and the accompanying pollution. The facts often touted seem dramatic, but concerning enough that I want to know their validity. Again we’re talking about factory farming here – smaller and traditional farming practices don’t factor into these statistics.
Water gets the spotlight here, particular in the wake of some dry summers (to the point of drought) here in North America. Stats often show up highlighting the large amount of water needed to produce animal-products as compared to their vegetarian counterparts. For example, this study from Cornell University states that “100 times more water [is used to produce a pound of animal protein] than producing a pound of vegetable protein”.
This is the argument that I remember giving in my early teens when trying to convince my parents about becoming a vegetarian. Essentially, the amount of grain that is used to feed livestock could feed more people than the livestock will as meat. For example, this source states that the differences is five times the amount! It is important to recognize the difference in impact of grass-fed cattle versus grain-fed cattle. Researchers at Cornell further differentiate by saying that chickens use less resources in their life than cattle do.
Reducing Climate Change
Yes, climate change can be a contentious issue on its own. Yet a lot of research shows that switching to a vegan diet can actually have a larger effect than driving a hybrid vehicle. Eating less meat, whether for one day a week or always, is often touted as one of the most effective ways to help our environment. This is the type of idea that Meatless Mondays were born out of.
Phew! What a list, and it’s certainly not exhaustive on the this topic. Now I’m in no way an expert in either nutrition or environmental science, but it seems to me that these reasons at very least compel us to examine the role meat plays in our diets. There’s room for a wide range of choices that lead to healthful and environmentally conscious eating. It’s not necessarily about being vegetarian (though that can be a great option). It’s about making smart choices.
So where do we go from here? Doing some research and consulting a nutritionist may be helpful in making informed decisions. In the meantime, inspired by Michael Pollan’s approach in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, here are my 4 tips for balancing the role of meat with healthy and environmentally conscious choices:
- Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and fibre: This includes eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as choosing whole grains over those dreaded white starches.
- Eat real food: Meat or not, avoid edible “food-like substances”. If you’re not sure if it’s “real enough” take this test: Would your great grandmother recognize it? Does it have ingredients you can’t pronounce? Will it rot eventually? Less processing = less resources used, less waste produced, and less chemicals entering our bodies.
- Eco-sourcing: Choosing so-called “happy meat” can be an environmental and health choice. With the higher prices of more traditionally sourced meat, the phrase less is more comes to mind. Speaking of less…….
- Portion control: Whether reducing the amount of meat on your plate or in your week, meat doesn’t have to always be the star of the show. Try starting with MeatlessMonday – with all the online support, it may just spawn some new favourite recipes!
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Have you consciously changed the role of meat in your diet? Where do you think the right balance lies? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.