If you’re not ready to dramatically cut back on meat consumption but you are ready to slash your risk for preventable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, then try going meatless for just one day a week. The gains are substantial, for both your long-term health and the sustainability of our planet.
Health Risks of High Meat Intake
Hundreds of studies have linked a diet high in red and processed meats to an increased risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and decreased lifespan.
A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine included data from two studies made up collectively of 121, 342 men and women who filled out questionnaires detailing their health and diet choices over the course of 26 years. In that time, 23,926 participants died; 5,910 of those deaths were from heart disease and 9,464 from cancer.
Researchers discovered a few patterns: people who ate the most red meat were also the least physically active and the most likely to smoke. They also had higher body mass indices (BMIs) than did people who ate less meat. Controlling for these and other factors, researchers determined that an increase of 3 ounces of red meat each day lead to an associated 12% increase in overall mortality risk, with a 16% increased risk of dying from heart disease, and a 10% increased risk of dying from cancer. Processed meats such as bacon had an even greater impact—a 20% increased risk of death overall, a 21% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 16% increased risk of death from cancer!
The statistics are alarming, but the good news is that researchers also estimated that if people had cut their meat consumption in half, overall deaths would have declined by 9.3% for men and 7.6% for women.
If Not Meat, Then What?
A Harvard University study published in PLOS Medicine showed that substituting foods high in polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts and seeds, for foods high in saturated fats, such as those that make up full-fat dairy and meats, lowered heart disease risk by 19%. Walnuts, sunflower seeds, almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, and pecans are high in heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats.
You can replace the high amounts of saturated fats found in meat with an equally high intake of fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron, and magnesium by eating beans and peas. Doing so may even help you shed pounds and lower your BMI. Researchers at Imperial College London found that reducing meat intake helped to prevent long-term weight gain. Studies have consistently shown that people who eat vegetarian or low-meat diets have much lower body weights and BMIs than do those who eat meat frequently.
Protect the Planet
Going meatless for one day can also help reduce your carbon footprint, save water, and decrease fossil fuel dependence. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the meat industry produces more greenhouse emissions than transportation does, and it can take up to 2500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef! Abstaining from meat just one day out of seven can go a long way in protecting the planet and your health.