On the Menu: Why ‘Meatless Monday’ plan is good news all round

Apart from tackling the obesity epidemic, there are huge environmental benefits linked to the pledge


The Meatless Monday movement started during the first World War, primarily to conserve food and support US troops. Today its thrust is about preserving the health of the nation. In 1917, New York city hotels saved an estimated 116 tons of meat over the course of just one week. Millions of American families, hotels and caterers signed up to support the campaign while food supplies were scarce.

Today the Meatless Monday pledge promises health and environmental benefits. In 2003 the movement re-emerged to nudge people to become more conscious consumers. It was launched by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore in the United States.

Today they have Meatless Monday options in every Baltimore schools’ lunch menu to increase children’s intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

Obesity epidemic
It is considered to be a huge step towards reducing the obesity epidemic but this will depend on what is put on the plate instead of the “meat”, and whether or not it’s eaten.

Restaurants, workplaces and hospitals continue to pledge their support for the programme and cut meat from their menus once a week, to improve health and reduce the carbon footprint of their patrons.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a more plant-based diet, with more emphasis on vegetables, beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and with moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products.

The world’s largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, state that, “Vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes, including lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure.

“Also vegetarians tend to consume a lower proportion of calories from fat and fewer overall calories, and more fibre, potassium and vitamin C than non-vegetarians.”

Other lifestyle factors
What we don’t know is how much protection comes from the diet as opposed to other lifestyle factors that vegetarians tend to adopt.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health published a paper on red meat consumption in the journal Circulation in 2010.

They found that eating processed meat (as little as one to two slices of deli meat per day) was associated with a 42 per cent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 per cent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

Their definition of processed meat included any red meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or with the addition of chemical preservatives. Examples included bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs, processed deli or luncheon meats.

Unprocessed red meat
However, the systematic review did not find an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes among individuals eating unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb.

“Although cause-and-effect cannot be proven by these types of long-term observational studies, all of these studies adjusted for other risk factors, which may have been different between people who were eating more versus less meats,” the researchers noted.

“Also, the lifestyle factors associated with eating unprocessed red meats and processed meats were similar, but only processed meats were linked to higher risk.”

A recent study presented at the American Society of Human Genetics last year found that people with a common genetic variant who consume red or processed meat may increase their risk of colorectal cancer.

They also found another specific genetic variant that suggests eating more fruit, vegetables and fibre may lower the risk of colorectal cancer.

But what about the environmental benefits of the Meatless Monday movement? At its inception, the evidence clearly demonstrated that consumers didn’t think about the bigger issues such as climate change and deforestation when they went shopping.

If Americans were motivated to remove meat from their diet for just one day a week, approximately 45 billion gallons of petrol could be spared in one year.

Not only would there be reduced fossil fuel consumption but valuable water would be saved and greenhouse gas emissions cut. In a world where food-animal production generates more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, that’s significant.

There’s also great concern about antibiotic use in American livestock. In 2010 the Food and Drug Administration published data that indicated that 80 per cent of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were reserved for livestock and poultry.

The breakdown was 3.3 million kg for human use, as opposed to 13.1 million kg for animals used to produce food.
Endorsing campaign
Today the Meatless Monday movement is promoted all around the world including Japan, Britain, Canada, Israel and Australia. Nearly a billion Hindus throughout Asia support the campaign and the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, Rajan Zed, is endorsing the campaign for health, environmental and ethical reasons.

Helping people who consume large amounts of processed meats ease into the concept of increasing their plant protein is, I believe, warranted.

Meatless Monday is less about “no meat” than about the moderation of our consumption of it. And as well as reducing our risk of disease, there may be environmental spin-offs.

With the global population reaching seven billion in 2011 and expected to be nine billion in 2050, demand for food products is expected to increase by 70 per cent over the next 40 years.

Bord Bia’s strategy to promote Ireland’s sustainability and food credentials will focus on enhancing its Beef and Lamb Quality Assurance Scheme. It aims to build the world’s first scheme to incorporate an objective measurement of the carbon footprint, with similar measures around water and biodiversity to be added.

The fact that more intensive animal feeding regimes require 5-8kg of grain to produce 1kg of meat, means our predominant grass-based system provides a significant competitive advantage for meat and dairy production.

The opportunity to explore and highlight the health benefits of unprocessed lean beef, lamb and pork from our grass-based system is there too.

Nutritional components, such as CLA, found in our grass-fed meat and produce may result in increasing, not decreasing, market prospects.

It remains to be seen if the Meatless Monday movement gains traction here. There will be those who hate it and those who are up to the challenge.

If you are interested, log onto MeatlessMonday.com where you will find articles, a recipe widget that can be placed on any website or blog, and a tool kit with promotional materials in a downloadable format.

Paula Mee is a lead dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute.

pmee@medfit.ie; Twitter @paula_mee

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