September 11, 2012

Want To Save The Planet? Eat Less Meat, Study Finds

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

A simple solution to decrease chronic disease incidence and curb the carbon footprint is an easy, yet seemingly unobtainable one: eat less red meat.

According to a study published in the journal BMJ Open, reducing red and processed meat consumption would give a 3-12% drop in chronic disease incidence and would shrink the carbon footprint by about 30 million tons a year.

Estimates show that food and drink account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock farming accounting for around half of this proportion.

When imported foods in the UK are taken out of the equation, the government's 2050 target for an 80% cut in the UK's carbon footprint would be "unattainable" without a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, according to the new study.

Previous studies indicate that the risks of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer rise by 42%, 19%, and 18%, respectively, with every additional 50 grams of red and processed meat eaten daily.

During the study, the authors used the 2000-2001 British National Diet and Nutrition Survey to estimate red and processed meat intake across the UK population, as well as published data from life cycle analyses to determine gas emissions for 45 different food categories.

The team then developed a "counterfactual" alternative based on doubling the proportion of survey respondents who said they were vegetarian and the remainder adopting the same diet as those in the bottom fifth of red and processed meat consumption.

The survey found that those in the top fifth of consumption ate 2.5 times as much as those in the bottom fifth. Adopting the diet of those eating the least red and processed meat would mean cutting average consumption from 91 grams to 53 grams a day for men and 54 grams to 30 grams for women.

The calculations show that this would cut the risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes and bowel cancer by between 3% and 12% across the population as a whole.

The authors said that their data is a decade old, but the most recent nutrition survey indicates a similar, and even slightly higher, figure for red and processed meat consumption.

"This indicates that our estimates remain relevant and may even be conservative, highlighting the need for action to prevent further increases in intake in the UK population," the authors wrote in the journal.

They also said that while it may be harder for some people to understand the direct impact that climate change has on them, it is easier to understand the impact on their health.

"Health benefits provide near term rewards to individuals for climate friendly changes and may thus 'nudge' humanity towards a sustainable future," the authors wrote. "Dietary recommendations should no longer be based on direct health effects alone."