What’s the Beef with Meat?

Background:  A growing number of anti-meat zealots, usually driven by an animal rights agenda, are disseminating shoddy science in an effort to drive consumers toward a meatless diet.

  • Humane Society of the United States-affiliated physician Michael Greger promoted ending fish consumption by speculating in his “Latest in Clinical Nutrition” DVD series that fish were susceptible to mad cow disease. He has also promoted theories that eating chicken can lead to problems with male sexual development and collaborated with cult leader “Supreme Master” Ching Hai.
  • Upon hearing that Charlton Heston had fallen ill with Alzheimer’s Disease, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk suggested that her organization would “toy with the idea that both Alzheimer’s and CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease] are related to meat consumption.”
  • The Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) attempts to blame meat and other animal products for as many American deaths as possible. In one short article, FARM claims that “in 1999, 1.29 million, or 54%, of all U.S. deaths were attributed to diseases for which consumption of animal products represents a substantial risk factor.”

Doesn’t meat cause cancer? While anti-meat activists like to link meat consumption with cancer, that claim is bogus.

  • The single biggest study on the subject, a 2004 Harvard University research project, found no link between meat eating and cancer diagnoses. And cancer rates in the United States are decreasing every year. Americans’ life expectancy is actually at an all-time high. The Harvard researchers also found that some meat is “associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.”
  • Anti-meat activists claim Americans are eating far more red meat than the government recommends, but data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that the average American eats 2.5 ounces of red meat per day. This is far below the 5 to 6 ounces that the federal government’s current dietary guidelines recommend for foods in the “protein foods” group.
  • At an American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) global-report launch conference, Dr. Arthur Schatzkin (who before his death in February served as Chief of the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics of the National Cancer Institute) declared the anti-meat hypothesis bogus by insisting that “meat is a valuable source of nutrients,” and that “milk probably decreases the risk for colorectal cancer.”
  • Top British cancer specialist Dr. Karol Sikora found that “red meat and bacon in moderation will do us no harm and to suggest they will is wrong.” He also cautioned that “cancer can’t be reduced to a simple formula.”

Aren’t vegetarians healthier? Anti-meat activists like to claim that a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than one that includes a wider range of foods.  But research shows that the opposite is true.

  • Writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Swedish scientists Christel L. Larson and Gunnar K. Johansson reported that vegan dietary habits “did not comply with the average requirements for some essential nutrients.” In particular, they found that vegans lacked appropriate levels of riboflavin, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, and selenium.
  • Reporting on an even more comprehensive British study involving nearly 8,000 subjects, a Cambridge University professor said that children born to vegetarian mothers are up to five times more likely to be born with “deformities” and other birth defects. “There is a clear association,” the study’s lead scientist said, “between child deformities and vegetarianism, and this is a cause for concern.”
  • A 2008 Oxford University study linked a vegetarian diet with a higher risk of “brain shrinkage” In humans. In 2009, USA Today reported that Australian and Vietnamese researchers found vegans and vegetarians had less bone density than omnivores. Researchers have also discovered that vegan diets could increase the risk of birth defects due to a lack of vitamin B12.

The Bottom Line: Health zealots, often with ulterior animal-rights motives, have failed to establish the superiority of a meatless diet.

  • People shouldn’t reflexively trust groups that have “health” as a supposed goal and white-hat physicians making their public statements. For instance, “The Cancer Project,” which advocates for some alleged cancer-fighting benefits of a vegan diet, is actually a subsidiary of the misnamed Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Only ten percent of that group’s members are M.D.s, and it is led by a PETA-connected psychiatrist.
  • Vegan health activists pick and choose studies that back up their preconceived ideologies. Many studies support meat eating within a healthy diet: One study found no association between red meat and higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, another found no association between fish, processed meat, or poultry and colorectal cancer and yet another concluded that the positives of moderate consumption of lean red meat outweigh the possible negatives.
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all diet. Simply “going veggie” is not a guarantee of losing weight, curing cancer, or acquiring any other health benefit.