Is it time we all gave up eating meat?
Published 15/12/2015 | 00:00
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the latest public figure to add his voice to the growing chorus urging us to give up eating animal products. Should we listen, asks our reporter
This week the beefiest action hero of them all made a surprising revelation. Speaking at the UN Climate Change conference in Paris, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that we all should be thinking about terminating our relationship with meat.
According to the 68- year-old former governor, 28pc of all greenhouse gases are caused by intensive farming, making vegetarianism the environmentally friendly choice of dining.
"I think it's a good idea," he told the BBC. But he reckons people "won't buy in" to ditching their beef altogether so he's urging us instead to have one or two meat-free days a week.
"You have to start slowly," he says. "It's a very big challenge but it doesn't mean it shouldn't be done."
It's quite a turn around for the bodybuilder who once chowed down some 250g of protein a day (much of it steak, sausages and bacon) and who, not so long ago, mocked Sly Stallone for punching "like a vegetarian" in the 2013 film action plan.
But Arnie's not the only celebrity urging us to save the planet by swapping hamburger patties for pulses. Earlier this year Morrissey declared that "moving toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat climate changes worst effects". Vegetarians Al Gore and Woody Harrelson have likewise been vocal about their beef with intensive farming.
Evidence from the UN shows that emissions from farming, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past 50 years, and may increase a further 30pc by 2050. Most of those emissions come from nitrogen fertilisers and cows releasing methane gas, made worse by deforestation to accommodate grazing.
For the same energy needed to produce one kilogram of meat, we could be producing up to 10kg of plant protein.
If that's not enough of an incentive to say no to sausages, then what about the risks meat might be posing your own health? Never mind the fact that we don't always know exactly what we're eating (horsemeat lasagne anyone?) there's also that recent report from the WHO suggesting a link between red and processed meat and cancer.
Much research has suggested that our Western diet is far too reliant on meat and could be increasing our risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, higher blood pressure, higher levels of hypertension and diabetes. A high intake of red meat is also one of the main factors behind the prediction that Ireland will be the most obese country in Europe by 2030.
"There is no doubt that a vegetarian diet is a very healthy diet when done properly and protein is replaced with plant sources of protein," agrees consultant dietician Aveen Bannon from the Dublin Nutrition Centre.
"A balanced vegetarian diet can lead to a healthier weight, better glucose control and lower cholesterol levels."
Food for thought surely? And yet there's still something about our meat-loving society that has trouble stomaching the idea of a dinner that's two veg, no meat. Part of it is the worry that we'll all be weary weaklings if we lose our big source of protein.
"Nobody ever asks you about your protein intake, until you tell them you're a vegan," laughed Rosanna Davison in a recent interview with the Irish Independent.
The former Miss World, and qualified nutritionist, reckons part of people's antipathy comes down to semantics. "That word [vegan] can conjure up images of tree-hugging hippies," she explains. "I rather like the phrases 'whole-foods', or 'plant-based' and I think a lot of people find those more acceptable and less intimidating."
A keen athlete, Rosanna is a good example of how the no meat: no energy fear is ill-founded. The 2014 Mr Universe, Barny du Plessis is vegan, as is Russian World Champion arm wrestler, Alexey Voyevoda. Both beefy: no beef.
Figures show that 12pc of the UK population don't eat meat and the number of vegans has doubled in the last nine years. The Vegetarian Society of Ireland suggests that the figures in Ireland are similar, with anecdotal evidence supporting the trend.
Mick Meaney and his wife Sarah run the Nut Case Food Company in Cobh, Co Cork producing quality meat-free nutroasts and nutburgers.
"We've seen an increase in interest in our products," he reveals. What he's noticed is that if you can change people's misconceptions of 'vegetarian cuisine' then you open them up to a wider, healthier range of foods.
"People are sometimes a bit set in their ways," he explains.
"If we offer a sample, we can often be told 'I'm not vegetarian' and dismissed. But once they try it, they are amazed that our burger is healthy, tasty, high in protein and just happens to be meat free."
From a health point of view, being more open to veggie options as well as more moderate and knowledgeable in our meat consumption could be the smartest approach.
"Meat is not bad for us, particularly if we choose lean cuts," says Aveen. "Meat is a valuable source of protein in the diet and also of zinc, iron and vitamin B12.
"The key factor is to embrace variety - include meat along with fish and vegetarian foods - but ensure you're getting a variety of nutrition and eating the right serving size."
A portion of meat should be roughly the size of your palm and, according to the FSAI, red meat should be eaten just three times a week. Making sure you eat enough dark green vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts, quorn, tofu, nuts, seeds, tempeh and miso should ensure you get enough protein, iron and B12.
"Avoiding red meat is not going to improve your overall health if your diet is still low in fibre, fruits and vegetables," warns Aveen. "Balance is key."
Moreover, particularly with regard to the cancer threat, what type of meat we eat matters more than ditching it altogether.
"There is no need to become vegetarian," explains Dr John McKenna, author of What You Can Do to Prevent Cancer. "The issue is unsafe meat, not meat. Organic meat which is not preserved is perfectly safe. Once commercial meat or meat products are preserved with a nitrite, such as sodium nitrite, there is a danger that this nitrite can combine with the protein in meat to form nitrosamines and these have been linked with liver cancer in experimental animals and with gastro-intestinal cancers in humans."
Next month Dr McKenna is hosting a seminar looking at the lifestyle changes - particularly dietary - that can lower our risk of cancer (see seminars.ie for details).
He has lived with primitive tribes in Africa, whose diets would be mainly animal products, but who have an almost zero incidence of cancer.
"The issue is not meat but the commercialisation of the meat industry," he adds. "The use of preservatives in meat should be banned as 90pc of nitrosamines are carcinogenic… but that would seriously affect the sale of meat and so is bad for the meat industry."
But there is another worrying angle in the argument against meat. Just last week a UK government paper branded the use of antibiotics in agriculture "a critical threat to public health" with increasing numbers of drug-resistant strains of bacteria and superbugs that could be passed from animals to humans.
"Certainly there's a lot of data that shows that you can get spread of antibiotic resistance via the food chain," agrees Dr Rob Cunney consultant microbiologist and HSE/RCPI clinical lead.
"But that's not necessarily all related to meat."
The threat from meat depends on how it is handled and where it comes from. In Ireland there is relatively low use of antibiotics in animals and strict guidelines in place to prevent antibiotic residue making its way into food.
"If you only eat Irish food, the risk of acquiring an infection or resistant bacteria is reasonably low," explains Dr Cunney.
"It's an interesting angle, whether another health advantage to being vegetarian reduces your risk of antibiotic resistance but I still think that the big driver there is the over-use of antibiotics in humans not animals."
So no need to say 'Hasta la vista baby' to the Christmas ham? "From an overall health point of view, it is a good idea to be predominantly vegetarian," concludes Dr Cunney. "Limit your intake of meat, make meat a treat."