Having spent the past three years learning as much about food, diet, agriculture and health as I’ve been able, in connection with launching an organic food company, I’ve put my diet through some radical, and not-so-radical, changes.
Read enough about food, and the way it’s grown, processed and distributed today, and you’re bound to find some ugly facts about foods you’ve eaten for years.
And many of these ugly facts will be about meat. There are enough groups opposed to meat eating – ethical vegans, organizations protesting cruelty to animals, doctors who feel that meat is the origin of heart disease and cancer – that ugly facts about meat production and consumption tend to get out in front of the public eye very quickly.
And many of these facts are truly ugly. But others aren’t as ugly as they may seem. How to sift trough everything you hear and separate fact from fiction? Here’s my best shot at it.
Health. Meat gets a bad rap these days. It’s linked in studies, or at least in popular culture, to heart disease, cancers, obesity, diabetes. But do these links really exist?
To some degree, yes. Meat eating does seem to correlate with a higher incidence of heart attacks and strokes. It does seem to increase your odds of suffering various forms of cancer. And it may even have some link to weight gain.
But I’m not sure animal products themselves are to blame. Meat itself shouldn’t cause heart disease: the Masai in east Africa live off nothing but cow’s milk and cow’s blood and yet have a far lower (if any) incidence of heart disease than Americans. It doesn’t seem to cause most cancers. Sure, prostate and colon cancer seem correlated to meat consumption; but for most cancer there’s no difference in risk between vegans and meat lovers. And meat shouldn’t make you obese. The Masai typically aren’t obese (far from it), despite their diets. And in my own experience, eating cooked meat doesn’t make me any heavier than eating cooked vegetables.
So, why does meat get such a bad rap? Well, there are a couple problems. One is, despite the Masai’s good track record of eating meat but avoiding heart disease, there does seem to be a correlation between the two in America. Very possibly, this is due to the way we raise our meat. Masai cattle graze on grass, as cows are “designed” to do. Here, we force them to live off corn, soybeans and rendered animal products, none of which the cow’s body is designed to digest. For whatever reason, this results in beef, milk and cheese that’s lower in omega-3 fatty acids and higher than omega-6 fatty acids than their counterparts from grass-fed cattle. This fatty acid imbalance is notorious for creating inflammation, and inflammation is a major factor in heart disease.
Inflammation is also a major factor in cancer, and there’s some sign that with certain cancers meat consumption – even as little as one serving per week – can dramatically increase risk. Inflammation may, after all, create a hospitable environment for cancer as well.
As for weight gain, I’m skeptical there’s a direct connection. However, there may be an incidental one. One food I’m confident will cause weight gain is white bread, and due to the prevalence of hamburgers, hot dogs and deli sandwiches in our society, meat often goes hand in hand with white bread. So, if you eat the two together, then yes, meat (plus white bread) will often cause weight gain.
So I’m not sure that meat is unambiguously unhealthy. Properly raised, I believe it can be perfectly healthy. But if you’re eating meat that’s not properly raised, take care. You may want to at the least offset it with some omega-3 supplements, or fatty fish; and you may well want to monitor your intake.
Ethics. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the ethical concerns of eating animals, particularly since reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of the same name. (Eating Animals.) The book is reportedly now being made into a documentary.
I won’t rehash all these arguments here. In short, I’m not thrilled about eating pigs or chickens (or their eggs) the way these animals are raised today. (Cows seem to be treated better, though not in ways you’d want to be treated if you were cow.) I’m generally not particularly squeamish about animal rights (though I can see us looking back some day with horror at our current meat eating society), but a lot of what’s done borders on the type of sick torture you’d see in a dark science fiction film.
Today’s society makes it hard to avoid animal products unless you hang out regularly with vegans, prepare the vast bulk of your meals at home, or are willing to eat foods like white bread, potato chips or French fries that are widely available at restaurants, diners and convenience stores but that wreak havoc on your body. It’s also hard unless you want to always eat something different when you order takeout with friends, demand vegan fare when someone else cooks for you, and always pick the restaurant when you go out for dinner.
So for someone who doesn’t want to play a role in what’s done today to our food animals, but wants to live a somewhat normal food life, there’s little choice but compromise.
For me, the balance I’ve struck is to eat vegan when I’m alone, or when it’s otherwise not majorly disruptive of my life and that of those around me, or to my health, and to do as the Romans do the rest of the time. I do care about stopping torture of food animals. I also want to live my life, and society makes completely responsible choices extremely challenging in this area.
So, what I’ve learned this past year is, keep meat (particularly improperly raised meat – which is the vast majority of meat served or sold in this country these days) to a fairly small portion of your diet. For your health, and for the animals.