Could a meat and dairy-free diet seriously help save the world?

Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise in Britain – recent reports show that around 12% of the UK’s population now follow a meat or dairy free diet. Although this could be attributed to an increased concern for animal welfare, a major player in this field is the growing belief that avoiding meat and dairy has a significant positive impact not only on your own health, but on the global environment. These dietary choices used to be made almost solely for animal cruelty reasons, but are now being adopted by those concerned that increased production of meat leads to increased methane and carbon levels in the atmosphere, or by those looking to lose cholesterol and excess fat from their diets.

Initiatives such as Veganuary encourage people to attempt meat and dairy free diets for a limited period of time, and many detox and weight-loss diets advocate reducing the amount of meat you eat, limiting the times at which you may eat it, or else cutting out meat and dairy products altogether. The market for meat substitutes in the UK has increased by more than 20% since 2008, partially thanks to the increased advertising of products such as Quorn as aids to weight-loss.

But recent research has cast doubt on some of these supposed positives – in a field of ongoing research it can be very difficult to ascertain which aspects of the meat and dairy free diets really are benefitting our bodies and environment.

What constitutes a healthy diet and the impact it has on your life are heavily debated topics. An internet search reveals many contradictory studies, and more still opinion pieces disguised as fact. For instance, some urban myths claim that those who follow vegetarian and vegan diets actually die younger, but is there any truth to this? There doesn’t seem to be any factual basis for the claim, with some studies showing that vegetarians do generally live longer than their carnivorous counterparts. In the Loma Linda University’s 2013 study, subjects were tracked for six years and during this time it was found that vegetarians had a twelve per cent lower chance of death, and vegans fifteen per cent, compared to meat eaters. However the study also highlighted that there may be other factors influencing this. It showed that vegetarians were more likely to have higher levels of education, which may mean that they could also be more likely to be aware of the benefits of proper nutrition, have lower BMIs, do regular exercise and be non-smokers and non-drinkers. So, while this study could potentially point to the health benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle, there are too many variables for it to be conclusive.

More recent research undertaken by the University of Gaz in Austria suggests a contradictory proposition. In 2014 the university published a report advising that vegetarians are more at risk of cancer, are 50% more likely to have a heart attack at some point in their lives, and are at increased risk of developing a mental abnormality. This seemingly could be attributed to a lack of animal fats in their diet, or a lack of protein. While the issue of a lack of protein can easily be overcome by eating properly with the assistance of meat substitutes, beans, pulses and nuts, if animal fat really is as critical to a healthy diet as this study seems to suggest, those advocating the health benefits of a meat free diet may be set to receive a bit of a knock.

Conversely, more statistics, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination
Survey from 2014 claiming that a diet rich in meat and dairy could be as bad for you as smoking, certainly seems to suggest that those advocating meat and dairy free diets for health reasons are correct. But every day new evidence is unfolding which may yet prove this wrong. One persuasive reason for the avoidance of meat and dairy is their high saturated fat content. For decades we have believed saturated fats to be extremely harmful for our bodies, but a study published in the British Medical Journal last year failed to find a link between food containing increased saturated fats and an increased risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or type-2 diabetes. Although the team of scientists behind the research admit this is as yet inconclusive, a discovery that there really was no link between the two would turn our nutritional knowledge completely upside down.

For a long time it seemed that while there was a complete lack of consensus with regard to the impact of meat and dairy on the human body, we could at least all agree that its impact on the environment was negative. However, now even this may be brought into question by new pieces of research, with one such study being produced here at the University of Edinburgh as reported in The Student earlier this month. The report, which focused solely on one grazing model, suggested that lowering meat consumption would not necessarily lead to decreased levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Although at first sight this prospect threatens to turn our beliefs surrounding what is and isn’t harmful to the planet on their head, it is important to bear in mind that the study focuses on the Brazilian savannah, a very specific ecosystem in which the grass plants are able to store large amounts of carbon due to their long roots. This means that while a decrease in meat consumption in that particular region would lead to an increase in emissions due to a lower quality of grass being kept by farmers, this effect would not necessarily be reflected across all production systems – in many regions a decrease in meat production would still lead to the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions that we have expected.

It is still certain that our high levels of meat consumption are harming the environment – a UN report from 2006 indicates that rearing cattle for meat and dairy production causes more carbon emission than driving cars. Deforestation is another huge concern: the Amazon rainforest is losing trees at an alarming rate and although this could be attributed to several causes, a recent report suggests that up to 70% of all deforestation in the area could be as a result of cattle ranching.

For those of us trying to make informed decisions about the impact our meat consumption has on ourselves and the world around us, much of what we have to work with is frustratingly inconclusive. It may be years before medical research determines the true effects of meat on our bodies, and until then, many advocate simple moderation as the best option. On the other hand the certainty of the meat industry’s environmental impact leads only to the problem of how we should go about reducing the impact of animal production without increasing the industry’s carbon footprint, as the Edinburgh University study warns.

Image: Daniel Schwen

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