Sunday, October 11, 2015

What’s the Beef with Beef?

For every burger skipped, you can save enough water to drink for the next 3 years.
 For every burger skipped, you can save enough energy to charge your phone for 4.5 years.   
These surprising statements come from Meatless Monday, a movement started by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to promote health and the environment.  Meatless Monday has spread to many industrialized countries.  In poorer parts of the world, many days may be meatless.

The October issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter ( has a lead article about beef – why we should be eating less of it and less of other red meats.  Here are some salient points made by Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard.

Risk of Dying Prematurely  This risk is 37% higher in men who ate 2 servings of red meat a day compared to those who ate 2 servings a week.  Red meat was related to a high risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.  Red meat consumption during adolescence is related to the risk of breast cancer.

Risk of cancer – smoking is the greatest risk factor, followed by being overweight Red meat contributes to overweight, but is a risk factor even after removing its effect on weight. 

Other Sources of protein – plant sources include nuts and beans .  There is a small amount of protein in whole grains.  Poultry has not been linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease stroke or diabetes.  Fish contributes omega-3 fatty acids.  Yogurt is the healthiest dairy food, probably because of its effect on microbes in the gut (our microbiome).

Red meat’s impact on the planet:  Cattle produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  Per cow, grass-fed cattle are equally bad for producing greenhouse gases, because they live a longer time. If we stopped feeding grain to cattle, the environment would be greatly improved.  Huge amounts of water are needed to grow grain for cattle., and manure runoff from feedlots is an unsolved problem.  The vast monocultures of grain and soy to feed animals, and also to produce ethanol and high fructose corn syrup, are seriously threatening biodiversity.

The Protein Flip – the Culinary Institute of America is working on popularizing menus with less red meat and more recipes from other cultures using beans.  Burgers made with vegetables, fish and poultry are becoming more widespread.

The Antibiotic Problem – Most livestock  animals (except those grown by organic farmers) have been fed antibiotics for growth enhancement, not just disease treatment.  This has led to antibiotic resistance, affecting everyone who gets an infection, including people who do not eat meat.  Resistant bacteria have spread widely in the environment.   

Actions we all can take:  Investigate Meatless Monday.  Reduce your red meat intake – You will be protecting your health and  reducing greenhouse gasses and water use .  Support your local farmers and enjoy their beans and eggs, as well as their vegetables.  Subscribe to Nutrition Action Health Letter, published by Center for Science in the Public Interest.  You will be inspired.

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH