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Dietitian Nicole Senior ponders finding health in the happy medium Eating meat kick-started the evolution of modern big-brained humans. But we can actually live long and healthy lives without eating it, and many millions do. However, it’s a highly nutritious food that provides us with essential nutrients more difficult to obtain from plant foods.

portion of meat on dinner plate
Source: Reversing Diabetes (Murdoch Books)

Red meat, for example, is rich in iron necessary for healthy blood, zinc for immunity and vitamin B12 for healthy DNA and cell division. Sure, there are vegetarians who thrive on a meatless diet, but there are also those who don’t and take nutrient supplements to make up the shortfall. In some poor countries, where people cannot afford to eat meat, iron-deficiency anaemia is one of the most common childhood diseases. But meat poses ethical questions around the environment – red meat has the highest environmental footprint – and animal welfare.

While it’s true livestock contribute to environmental problems, the environmental argument against meat has been infused with emotion and ideology as to whether we should eat meat at all. Veganism is rising, with the extremists in the movement taking a militant approach going so far as trespassing on farms and causing damage.

The picture has also been muddied by the rampantly excessive consumption of meat in some rich countries and the environmentally damaging effects of factory farming, the vast scale of commercialised livestock production where animals become a unit in a production line, and the scandals in Australia over the cruel export and slaughter methods of live cattle and sheep, and more recently what happens to race horses that have passed their use-by date (in our book). For many people the way we treat farm animals is no longer acceptable and higher moral standards are being demanded.

In a way, meat offers nutritional insurance for reckless eating and incompetent cooking whereas plant-based eating requires a new diligence both for nutritional balance and enjoyment. The degree of difficulty of a meatless diet is much higher than an omnivorous diet. Maybe rather than blindly following all the vegan marketing hype (not all vegan products are healthy), we just need to be more mindful of our diet generally? For example, reducing the amount of nutrient-poor, highly processed foods we eat, learning to grow and cook our own food, only buying what we can eat, and not throwing food in the bin (which wastes the resources that went in to producing it and produces greenhouse gases in landfill).

The question of how much meat we can get away with eating and still look after our health and the environment is hotly debated and depends on a myriad of factors including: location/region, climate, production method, land and water use, feed type, animal genetics, waste management, supply chain efficiency, transport and wastage.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Diet and Health report published in February 2019 took a global approach that aimed to incorporate nutritional needs and environmental limits needs with a Planetary Health Diet. It is a plant-based diet with 14g a day of beef/lamb/pork (98g/week) with a range of 0–28g/day, 29g poultry per day (203g/week), 28g of fish per day (196g/week) and 13g of egg per day (about 2 eggs/week). This report has drawn both congratulations and criticism in equal measure. The harshest criticism has been directed at the very small amounts of meat, which are less than previously proposed for environmental sustainability and less than currently recommended in dietary guidelines. We shall wait to see how the rest of the world takes on their recommendations.

While high intensity factory farming such as feed lot cattle is seen as unacceptable to most on both environmental and ethical grounds, the agricultural story around meat production isn’t all bad. In Australia, for example, most cattle and sheep are grass-fed on marginal land unsuitable for crops. Integrated farming is a better and more sustainable way forward and this approach involves mixing animal and plants on the same farm to allow for maximum output through nutrient cycling and minimal pollution.

It is unrealistic to think we will all stop eating meat to save the environment or to “be kind” to animals, however, we can produce meat in a much more sustainable and ethical way, and we can eat less meat to minimise our environmental impact. There’s no need to banish meat from your dinner plate – just cut back so it’s a tasty side show rather than the main event. We as citizen-eaters can help by eating animals “nose-to-tail” (not just our favourite bits) and not wasting any because throwing animal foods in the bin just adds insult to injury (it wastes the already significant environmental costs in producing it).

Australian ex-food-critic-turned-farmer, TV presenter and author Matthew Evans says we will need to pay more for meat that meets our higher moral expectations, “The simplest way to better impact the animals, the land, the farmer, is to perhaps eat meat less often, but spend more on it.” And remember eating less red meat is easy because there is (sustainably sourced) fish, chicken and pork with smaller environmental footprints as well as good plant sources of protein that we should be eating more of. This dietary strategy when taken on by the population will send a message to producers that they can use less intensive, kinder and more sustainable methods to produce animal foods, and can ramp up sustainable plant food production to meet demand.

My takeout message is this – meat is nutritionally important, but we in rich countries should eat less; and only our fair share. We need to focus on farming animals (and crops) more sustainably and with minimal environmental impact.

Avowed carnivores and vegans are dietary extremes while health is so often found in the happy medium. If we ate according to health guidelines, both our own health and the health of the planet and all the people living on it could be improved!

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