Eating Less Meat is a Prescription for Better Health | Civil Eats

Eating Less Meat is a Prescription for Better Health

Regardless of whether Senate Republicans are able to repeal healthcare for millions of Americans, our dietary habits are a surefire way to tackle the global epidemic of chronic disease.

eating less meat

While Senate Republicans work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the future of health insurance in our country remains unknown. But what we do know is that chronic diseases and conditions continue to be the leading cause of disability and death and claim 90 percent of the U.S. health care spending. And many of those diseases and conditions are linked to our food choices.

As per capita gross domestic product increases around the world, we are witnessing an increase in the per capita dietary demand for meat and empty calories (such as from refined sugars and refined animal fats). Along with this shift has come rising rates of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Together they account for seven out of 10 deaths globally.

We know that many chronic diseases can be prevented, or at least effectively treated or reversed, with dietary and lifestyle changes—namely eating less meat and fewer processed foods. But instead of spending our health care dollars preventing these diseases, we’re merely mitigating their symptoms and controlling their progression.

Take, for example, the powerful effects of dietary choices on the top two leading global causes of death from non-contagious diseases in 2015: cardiovascular disease (which includes coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke) and cancer.

While technological advances have led to many saved lives from such emergency situations as heart attacks and strokes, we should take a moment to realize that these medical technologies do not address the root of the problem. If we continue to provide fuel to the fire, pouring water over the fire will only go so far.

It has been said that 90 percent of coronary artery disease can be prevented. Aside from stopping smoking and getting regular exercise, perhaps the best way to do so is by eating less meat and more plants.

In a large study that enrolled more than 44,000 people and followed them for about 11 years, vegetarians (people who did not eat meat or fish) had a 32 percent lower risk of developing coronary artery disease. Importantly, this lower risk was seen even after taking smoking and physical activity level out of the equation.

For people who already have coronary artery disease, switching to a plant-centric diet improves their outcomes. A randomized, controlled trial found that a program of lifestyle changes that included a vegetarian diet led to some reversal of the atherosclerotic narrowing of the blood vessels supplying the heart in people with coronary artery disease, and reduced the risk of a cardiac event by almost 2.5 times.

Eating more plants and less meat also lowers cancer risk. In a study that followed more than 61,000 people for almost 15 years, vegetarians and pescetarians were 12 percent less likely to develop cancer than omnivores, while vegans had the lowest risk of developing cancer.

A 2014 study published in Nature analyzed findings from eight large study cohorts and found that the Mediterranean diet (which includes lower amounts of animal products), the pescetarian diet, and a vegetarian diet reduced the rates of developing cancer by 7 to 13 percent and diabetes by 16 to 41 percent.

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People who eat plant-centric diets not only are healthier but also live longer. When more than 73,000 people were studied for almost six years, vegetarians had a 9 percent lower all-cause mortality risk than omnivores, while vegans benefited from an even lower mortality risk (15 percent lower).

Researchers from Harvard also found that replacing animal proteins with plant proteins is associated with lower mortality. For example, replacing 3 percent of protein energy from processed red meat with an equivalent amount of protein from plants lowers the mortality risk by 34 percent.

There are also broad public health implications of eating more plants and less animal protein. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the widespread adoption of a diet that includes reduced amounts of red meat and sugar and at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day would result in 5.1 million avoided deaths per year worldwide. The researchers found that an increase in vegetarian and vegan diets would result in even more avoided deaths.

It is not surprising, then, that a widespread adoption of plant-centric diets can also produce significant health care cost savings. In the same study above, the researchers estimated that the broad adoption of a diet low in red meat and sugar intake would lead to $735 billion per year of global health-related cost savings in 2050.

It has only been several decades since cigarette smoking was considered safe by consumers and physicians alike. Can we afford to wait several more decades before we collectively and unreservedly realize the harmful health effects of consuming so many animal-based and processed foods?

Given the numbers above, health care providers and public health institutions have a responsibility to educate and counsel the public on the benefits of following plant-centric diets. Some academic medical institutions, including Harvard and the University of Cincinnati, have started teaching kitchens, in which health care professionals focus on the primary role of food, rather than medications, in promoting health and wellbeing.

The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program piloted by the Georgia-based non-profit Wholesome Wave is another innovation that improves low-income Americans’ access to healthy foods and nutrition education.

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The growing global epidemic of chronic diseases must be stopped and reversed. Our food choices are one of the primary drivers of this epidemic, and our dietary habits have the greatest potential to make a widespread impact on our collective health. Despite the fickle future of health care coverage, the most critical ingredient in the recipe for creating health and preventing diseases lies in our own hands now.


George C. Wang, M.D., Ph.D., is a geriatrician and integrative medicine physician, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project. He can be followed on Twitter @GeorgeWangMD. Read more >

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  1. Heather
    Touting the health benefits of a more plant based diet is all well and good. BUT the main problem is that nationwide there are millions of families who simply cannot afford to eat healthier. If your food dollars are limited and you have to choose between feeding your hungry family with boxed mac and cheese vs a 3# bag of apples,the choice is pretty clear. We have to improve ACCESS to healthy foods for struggling families before we start preaching
    • kayak lizzie
      Heather - we can do both. The people who can afford it should be shifting to more plant based diets, less processed foods, less animal products. It does actually trickle down.

      Then work to bring more food education & access because you can eat more whole, less-processed foods on most budgets. Just adding in brown rice (buy a $20 rice cooker), beans and lentils into an otherwise mainstream diet can add healthy fiber and some protiens. Frozen vegetables can be very cost-effective for poor families because they don't spoil and still offer near-fresh nutrition. The key is not striving for the perfect diet out of the block for all humans, but working towards making better choices when the opportunities present themselves.

      The data presented here backs that up ... vegan is awesome, but just less meat and more fish in diets would move the needle on overall health. (And the example of smoking as well, there was a time it so ubiquitous it would have been hard to imagine the status smoking has in the current world.)

      This attitude where we throw up our hands and say "you don't understand the issues" doesn't lead to positive changes, just friction amongst the folks who actually want to help.
    • Niamh
      I get so annoyed with people claiming that a healthy plant based diet is somehow magically more expensive than a diet containing animal products. And so poorer people are dissuaded from doing it even though it would improve many of their health problems.

      I have a disability, so I live on less than $10,000 per year and I EAT AN ORGANIC PLANT BASED DIET. It is actually CHEAPER than a diet that contains animal products. I mean meat is the most expensive food, so I don't know why people would imagine that removing it from you diet would cost you money.

      It should be obvious to people that a plant based diet is cheaper because all of the poorer countries live on starch-based diets of rice, potatoes, maize, millet, buckwheat, etc... They can't afford to eat meat.

      I have to buy all of my food organic, due to pesticide allergies, and I eat 100% plant based. I eat a lot of grains and starches, beans, vegetables and fruit--the traditional diet of all major civilizations. I am able to do all of this while living below the poverty line because PLANT BASED DIETS ARE CHEAPER.
  2. S. Coleman
    I would rather die sooner than become a total herbivore! There is such a thing as quality of life,and adding a few dubious years to the detriment of same is not in my dietary book. I wish the "food Nazis" would mind their own business. If we weren't meant to be omnivores, why can the human system assimilate meat at all? If it wasn't meant to be that way,we would probably have.developed differently,like bovine with their ruminant stomachs.
    • Niamh
      First, there is evidence that we are not meant to be omnivores. One example, omnivores don't get heart disease when they eat animals. However, in clinical trials when they feed animal products to herbivores, like rabbits, they do develop heart disease, which they don't hey in their natural herbivore diet. Humans get heart disease on the Western diet but that drops by more than 90% when you take animal products out of the diet.

      Second, you most likely would be satisfied on a plant based diet. Research shows that people who were put on a plant based showed MORE emotional satisfaction with eating a whole food plant based diet than the diet they had previously been on. This was also my personal experience. I was a heavy meat eater (as in two quarters pounders with a meal sometimes twice a day) And I also went through a phase of eating a whole packet of bacon every morning with eggs and toast. However, I watched Forks Over Knives on Netflix and, for health reasons, I switch to a plant based diet the next day. I never looked back. I am so happy with my plant based diet. AND I lost a bunch of weight like it was nothing and now I look great too workout even trying. And I didn't even have to exercise or anything! Plant based for life!
    • Stefhan
      Niamh, nice cherry picking, but captive gorillas and chimps on high carb vegetarian diets also get heart disease, and the study you're alluding to about "More emotional satisfaction" was a study conducted by the head of PCRM, a vegan medical front group of PETA. If you actually read that study, you'd realize the performance bias built into the study to get the desired outcomes. The study was a poorly conducted joke. You obviously were eating a poorly constructed Standard American Diet so any change would have been an improvement.
  3. Kevin
    Just reading the abstract from the study in the paragraph beginning, "researchers from Harvard also found..", showed the author made some misrepresentations.

    First, the author of this article claims that the study concluded, "replacing animal proteins with plant proteins is associated with lower mortality", when the study's authors clearly state in their results that the lower mortality risk was found only in those with other significant negative lifestyle risks, such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake, obesity, lack of physical activity...and states that this lower risk was, quote, "not evident among those without any of these risk factors." In other words, the study found that if you have an otherwise healthy lifestyle, wheather you eat animal or plant protein makes little difference.

    That finding means little though, because this study does not apply to the general public. For it to do so, the participants would have to at least somewhat mirror the general population. The participants in this sample however were mostly female, and all from a healthcare career background. Meaning it does not apply to the population at large.

    Lastly, nothing is said about the methodology used to reach the numbers mentioned in the article. That's not abnormal. In this case though, I have a strong feeling the author was counting on most of his readers not shelling out $40 for the full study.

    My personal opinion: some of what was mentioned in this article was useful. Most of it was alarmist and politicized, and like many medical professionals do nowadays, the author tried to twist information he assumed his audience would never bother perusing to bolster his agenda.
    • Niamh
      To the untrained person it may seem like you know what your talking about, but to a trained researcher (which is what I am), it's clear that you basically just said nothing. You just listed off a handful of pseudoscientific nonsense. My guess? You're probably one of the paid trolls that the meat and dairy industry hires to post anti-vegan propaganda on social media.
  4. Thank you, and thank you Balanced for promoting this story...well done!

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