Health: Is meat murder? - Scotland on Sunday
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Health: Is meat murder?
Published Date: 26 July 2009
By Anna Miller
THE latest celebrity battle cry hit the headlines with considerable clout recently, as ex-Beatle Paul McCartney rallied the troops for Meat-Free Monday. With high-profile support from fellow members of the glitterati Chris Martin and Sheryl Crow, to name just two, McCartney's campaign called for households to cut out meat on Mondays in a bid to slow global warming. Not so much a Feed the World rally, as a Feed the World more selectively, if you will.
The singer says of the campaign, "Having one designated meat-free day a week is actually a meaningful change that everyone can make; it goes to the heart of several important political, environmental and ethical issues all at once."
Reducing meat consumption, he insists, will not just slow climate change, but will also help fight global hunger and improve the welfare of animals.
While some quickly dismissed his idea as the indulgent tokenism of the overly worthy, others have backed the campaign, timed as it is with the publication of new research suggesting there are health benefits to be gained through a meat-free diet. One recent study even suggests that cutting out meat could reduce the risk of developing cancer.
As part of an investigation by Cancer Research UK, more than 61,000 people were monitored over 12 years. The results found that vegetarians were 12% less likely to develop cancer than people who ate meat. The risk was almost halved for cancers of the blood, including leukaemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, where the risk for vegetarians was believed to be 45% lower than that for meat-eaters.
But arguments for a vegetarian lifestyle don't end there. Eating large amounts of red meat has often been suggested as a potential cause of arthritis; while too much saturated fat, found in meat, can also lead to gall stones, according to specialists. More controversially, Alzheimer's disease has been linked to the formation of clumps of protein in the brain, caused by excessive meat consumption.
There's also evidence to suggest that vegetarians often have a lower incidence of coronary artery disease, hypertension and obesity than meat-eaters, since a vegetarian diet is generally lower in fat, higher in antioxidants and lower in cholesterol. Research has found that too high an intake of animal protein from red meat can have a bad effect on bone health and increase the risk of osteoporosis. As meat is digested, it produces acid residues that need to be neutralised with alkalising minerals such as calcium. Leafy green vegetables such as cabbage and kale are rich in calcium, whereas meat has a relatively low content. There are weight benefits too, with vegetarians tending to be slimmer than meat-eaters since many recipes contain fewer calories than their fleshy cousins.
While there is a general agreement that the links between eating meat and health problems are complex, and more research is needed, a growing number of people appear to be opting for a diet free of animal protein. The reasons for this are wide-ranging, from health issues to factors including animal welfare and ethical and environmental issues.
A spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society says avoiding meat can encourage people to reconsider what they are eating and the wider implications of how diet affects our wider life choices. "Individuals who decide to cut out meat will usually become more interested in the nutritional content of food. People can be concerned about food and animal welfare, or food and its impact on the environment; they may also be concerned about their health, and so choose to avoid meat. New veggies can be worried that it will be more difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of a few nutrients commonly found in meat. This is simply not the case."
More importantly, she insists that it is possible to eat a balanced diet without the inclusion of animal products. "A healthy diet is achievable without eating any meat. A vegetarian diet can confer a wide range of health benefits. Research shows vegetarians suffer less from type II diabetes, diverticular disease, appendicitis and constipation."
But not all are so quick to stop eating meat, with some health problems, such as infertility and depression, being linked to vegetarianism. The British Nutrition Foundation suggests that vegetarians and meat eaters alike advice on getting a balanced diet that is low in fat (especially saturates) and includes at least five portions of fruit and veg every day.
Nutrionist Emma Conroy believes that whatever the dietary choice, being up to speed about what we put into our bodies is what counts. "We are increasingly interested in nutrition and far more sophisticated, but not necessarily wiser," she says. "Today's health-conscious consumers have to research, decode labels and calculate daily amounts, because thanks to industrialised farming and food-production, we no longer know what we are eating.
"Despite what those tables on food packaging suggest, there is no 'one-size-fits-all' balanced diet. Everyone has different nutritional needs, depending on genetics and environmental factors. As omnivores, though, humans in general do best on a mixed diet of plant and animal foods.
"Aside from ethical arguments," Conroy says, "there is a general assumption that meat is an unhealthy food, that people who eat meat are simply indulging their tastebuds at the expense of their health. Vegetarians often claim that meat-eaters have a huge, putrifying sludge of undigested meat in their guts, yet the truth is rather different. Good-quality meat is not only exceptionally rich in nutrients, it contains nutrients in forms that we absorb and utilise far more easily than nutrients in plant foods. Vegetarians and vegans are more at risk of deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals and fatty acids."
Nutritionist Frances Bavin insists that educating ourselves is the answer. "We seem to be getting back in touch with what our bodies need, and there are lots more TV programmes and magazine articles on the subject but there is room for improvement."
Whatever your decision, balance, it seems, is the key to a healthy diet.
Meat: the dangers
Meat consumption has been linked to the build-up of the protein beta-amyloid in the brain. The polyphenols in fruit and vegetables are believed to protect the brain from this accumulation.
A study by the Arthritis Research Campaign found that people who ate meat regularly (five or more times a week) had double the chance of getting arthritis in comparison with those who ate less red meat.
A recent study by Cancer Research UK found vegetarians were 12% less likely to develop cancer than people who ate meat.
One noted cause of gall stones is too much saturated fat, which is often found in meat. One study found that those who ate meat were 18% more likely to suffer from gall stones than those who didn't.
Although shellfish and eggs are thought of as the usual suspects, red meat can harbour dangerous bacteria including salmonella, E coli and campylobacter.
The National Osteoporosis Society advises that excessive intake of red meat can have a negative effect on bone health.
Why oh why do you ask a nutritionist about this when you could so easily have consulted a proper dietitian? Dietitians are properly trained and regulated and 'dietitian' is a protected title. Anyone with any qualifications (or none) can call themselves a nutritionist.
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