By Dr Laura Freeman, MD (IG: @drlaurafreeman)
It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the impact of eating meat on the climate and ecological crisis. Indeed, animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transportation combined (1). It is also the leading cause of water pollution, land degradation, loss of wildlife and biodiversity, deforestation and ocean destruction. Our current dietary choices are destroying our planet with red and processed meats having the highest environmental impact (1, 2).
If we are to really fight climate change, we need to make the connection between our food choices and the climate crisis. Shifting towards a plant based diet is urgently needed and there is plenty of research which supports that this would have the greatest impact on planetary health - more than any other driver of climate change (2, 3).
Our appetite for meat is not just hurting the planet. Increased global consumption of red meat has coincided with an exponential rise in chronic disease. There is an overwhelming amount of research highlighting the health hazards associated with eating processed and red meat. There is also an abundance of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of a whole food plant based diet which eliminates animal products.
We know that consumption of processed and red meat has been shown to lead to inflammation and oxidative stress. This explains the different ways in which red meat can contribute to the development of the major chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and certain types of cancer (4). Indeed, we also know that by shifting towards a more plant-based diet - a diet centred on fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds - is more in line with the WHO’s global dietary guidelines. This in turn, could prevent up to 8 million deaths per year by 2050 (5).
Should family doctors tell their patients to cut down on meat?
As a family doctor, I believe we should be positioned well to deliver the above message to our patients. It is both crucial and urgent for us to recognize this responsibility we hold as healthcare professionals. We need to educate our patients about the link between our food choices, our physical health and the health of our planet. In order to achieve this, it is necessary for us to promote and support our patients for a diet which excludes, or at very least reduces, red and processed meats and increases whole plant foods. By doing so, we can deliver an evidence based message which offers a sustainable approach for optimizing the physical health of our patients and at the same time, protects the health of our planet.
3. Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. 2018 Jun 1;360(6392):987-992. doi: 10.1126/science.aaq0216. Erratum in: Science. 2019 Feb 22;363(6429): PMID: 29853680.
4. Wolk A. Potential health hazards of eating red meat. J Intern Med. 2017 Feb;281(2):106-122. doi: 10.1111/joim.12543. Epub 2016 Sep 6. PMID: 2759752
5. Wang DD, Li Y, Afshin A, Springmann M, Mozaffarian D, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, Murray CJL, Willett WC. Global Improvement in Dietary Quality Could Lead to Substantial Reduction in Premature Death.