Is it healthier to eat less meat?


Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, ANutr)
@EmmaThornton
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21 January 2019

What are the benefits of not eating meat?

In October the meat industry fell under scrutiny as climate experts warned that we may need to drastically reduce our consumption of meat in order to tackle carbon emissions and protect the environment. These types of warnings are nothing new, though – experts have expressed their worries for years when it comes to the health consequences of a diet dominated by meat and have been urging a more ‘flexitarian’ approach.

People seem to be listening, too, as veganism is now one of the fastest growing movements in the UK, with approximately 542,000 participants  having sworn off meat and dairy completely. Is this complete boycott the right path? Are there any benefits to a meat-free diet? Well, I’m going to take a more in- depth look at how giving up meat can impact your health and a few misconceptions that surround a vegan diet. 

1. Red meat consumption is linked to higher rates of heart disease

When people think of red meat, they usually think of steak, mince and other sources of beef which, while not inaccurate, ignores other meats such as pork and lamb which also fall under this category. Red meat can be a valuable source of iron and vitamin B12, a nutrient that vegans often struggle to get from a plant-based diet, but studies have shown that diets rich in red meat can raise your risk of heart disease. A more recent study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio found that a compound contained in red meat, L-carnitine, could interact with your gut bacteria, raising your levels of TMAO, or trimethylamine N-oxide which are linked to the plaques that block arteries.1  

My thoughts: The NHS recommends that we eat no more than 70g of red meat a day which roughly equates to a couple of thinly cut slices of beef; to put things even more into perspective, around one pork sausage contains 50g and one slice of ham is around 25g.2  Unfortunately, here in the UK we don’t usually stick to this guideline and that is where problems can occur. A little red meat now and again shouldn’t impact your health too much and it is worth bearing in mind that it does contain vitamin B12, a nutrient which you need to support healthy energy levels but which isn’t readily found in a plant-based diet.

2. Meat can raise your cholesterol levels

Meat is undeniably associated with higher cholesterol levels as red meat, poultry and milk all contain saturated fats which can drive up cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease. Plant-based sources of protein don’t tend to have this content of saturated fats, instead containing a higher volume of unsaturated fats.

A few studies have examined whether or not a vegan or vegetarian diet could lower cholesterol levels and, thus far, the results have varied but been largely positive. One study found that a vegan diet could potentially reduce cholesterol levels  by 35% but this was limited to a smaller group of participants.3 A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked at 11 prior studies, examining how a meat-free diet could affect cholesterol levels of people with heart disease or risk factors, and found that total cholesterol was reduced by 13.9mg.4 A smaller, but not inconsiderable, amount!

My thoughts: High cholesterol is a huge problem here in the UK so the role of meat is definitely worth considering. When people tend to think of the negative repercussions of meat, red meat is usually in the forefront but here poultry and dairy also have to take some of the blame. Once again, moderation in the main thing to consider – most of us take milk in everything, from our tea and coffee to our cereal. Combine this with our meat intake and it’s understandable why our consumption of animal-based foods is being linked to this particular issue.

3. Meat is associated with high levels of inflammation

Inflammation is believed to be behind a number of health conditions, from heart disease to allergies to digestive problems, and scientists are starting to pay more attention to our inflammation levels. Refined sugars and carbohydrates are the usual suspects but fatty meats can again play a role; for example, inflammation usually occurs as part of our immune response. When our immune system recognises a potentially harmful substance or pathogen, it will trigger the release of inflammatory chemicals. In the case of meat, it contains pro-inflammatory mediators such as arachidonic acid which can encourage inflammation, affecting your gut health and other areas of your body.

My thoughts: Plant-based foods do tend to contain more anti-inflammatory nutrients and compounds which is why they’re often recommended as part of a diet to counteract inflammation. Animal by-products, on the other hand, often have the opposite effect so, if you do want to eat meat, it’s important to bear this in mind. Instead of revolving our meals around meat, perhaps we should take a note from Asian countries such as Japan, where meat is sparingly used to flavour dishes rather than taking centre stage as the main event. 

4. Meat can increase your risk of developing type-2 diabetes

When it comes to type-2 diabetes this is something you probably instinctively link to sugar consumption, and for good reason! Scientists are starting to find that there could be an association with meat too. The University of Eastern Finland, for example, analysed the diets of over 2,300 men between the ages of 42-60, none of whom displayed diabetic symptoms. This analysis was followed up 19 years later, where 432 of the volunteers had developed diabetes. It was found that those who ate more animal protein compared to plant protein had a 35% greater risk of getting diabetes.5 But how could this be? Well, most forms of meat might not contain sugar but they do contain sodium and nitrites, both of which can increase your blood pressure, upset your pancreatic function and cause insulin resistance.

My thoughts: Processed meats such as sausages, smoked ham, pepperoni, salami etc. are notorious for having extremely high levels of sodium. That’s why, if you are worried about your meat intake, I’d recommend cutting these particular varieties out of your diet – they usually offer little in the way of nutritional value and could end up doing more harm than good. 

5. Meat contains extra hormones and chemicals

One of the big problems with the farming industry is its reliance on pesticides and other artificial chemicals to maintain their crops and even their livestock. If the animal that your meat is derived from is grazing on grains that is saturated with these chemicals, then they may then still be present in your meat. It’s also worth noting that many farmers expose their animals to antibiotics – a huge issue as these antibiotics can then go on to increase our own immunity to these types of drugs, making us more vulnerable to illnesses that could otherwise have been treated. 

My thoughts: In recent years, regulations have tightened when it comes to the volume and type of products that farmers can use on their livestock; however, if you really want to avoid these chemicals, buying organically would be the best option – even plant-based crops can be exposed to pesticides and artificial toxins so veganism and vegetarianism are not a guarantee that you would avoid these! Not only are the livestock generally treated better on organic farms, you’ll also avoid many of the pesticides and antibiotics used in intensive farming, regardless of whether it’s meat, vegetables or even fruit! 

Can you lose weight by not eating meat?

One of the biggest benefits associated with a meat-free diet is a smaller waistline, as most people immediately assume that veganism or vegetarianism equates to a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If done properly, a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet can result in some weight loss; however, the key word here is healthy. It’s still possible to give up meat and eat unhealthily.

Sugar and salt, for example, are not unique to a meat-based diet. You can find them in plenty of vegan-friendly cakes and pastries while meat-free alternatives such as burgers and mince are often loaded with sodium, additives and E-numbers. The key to losing weight and maintaining a healthy diet, regardless of whether or not you eat meat, is still moderation and variation I’m afraid.

How can eating less meat affect the environment?

Meat might be making headlines for how it’s affecting our health but, as I mentioned earlier, more and more environmentalists are starting to voice their concerns for how the meat industry could be impacting our environment. Intensive farming, for example, has been historically linked to high levels of pollution while carbon emissions from the meat industry are becoming a real concern for climate experts. Veganism is being touted as a leading way to help stave off climate change but is this really true?

Veganism, it turns out, isn’t 100% environmentally-friendly either. Vegan cakes, crisps and burgers still come in various forms of plastic and cardboard packaging which can do just as much damage as carbon emissions from the slaughterhouse. There’s also the production angle you have to consider too – growing the almonds for non-dairy substitutes such as almond milk has caused plenty of problems in California.

 It’s estimated that as much as 10% of the state’s water goes into almond farming as they produce 80% of the world’s almonds. The issue here is that almond trees typically require a LOT of water to grow (around a gallon of water per nut!) and California is, unfortunately, prone to drought.6  Suppliers often have to drill into the earth to locate aquifers which could potentially threaten infrastructures nearby. You also have to consider that all of these plants and trees need to be pollinated – often honeybees are imported into the area but often they die as a result of the pesticides used on the crops. 

So, veganism is by no means devoid of having an environmental impact and, while it certainly doesn’t match the meat industry yet, one can imagine that as the demand for vegan-friendly substitutes and alternatives increases, this impact will too. When it comes to the environment, everyone could certainly be doing more to minimalise the consequences of their diet, either by choose more sustainable, organic options or by recycling and encouraging retailers to invest in more planet-friendly packaging.

My final verdict

Meat, in and of itself, is a vital part of most of our diets and, in moderation, can be an excellent source of protein, iron and vitamin B12. The reason why our health and the environment are so impacted by meat is because our consumption is excessive and, with the global population set to increase by as much as 3 billion in the next forty years, this could have major repercussions for future generations. Experts are advising that we reduce our intake meat and instead increase our consumption of pulses, legumes, vegetables and plant-based fats.7 

If you can manage a vegan or vegetarian diet in a healthy and sensible way then that’s fantastic but this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. The main thing you need take away from this, then, is moderation. Perhaps the best way forward is to look at the ‘flexitarian’ approach of Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and China – meat is by no means off the menu here but, compared to Western countries like the UK and USA, it’s definitely not as abundant in their diets.

Here, meat is infrequently used to add flavour to dishes and, instead, a greater focus is placed on complex forms of carbohydrates and fresh vegetables. Why not try to include a few meat-free dinners into your weekly routine? There are plenty of simple recipes out there for you to try so now is definitely the right time to experiment!

My favourite meat-free meals

Classic Vegan Chilli

Coconut, Spinach and Red Lentil Dhal

Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

BBQ Bean Burgers

Easy Chickpea & Spinach Curry

1https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323974.php

2https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/how-much-meat-safe-eat

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19766762

4https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/jaha.115.002408

5https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/intake-of-different-dietary-proteins-and-risk-of-type-2-diabetes-in-men-the-kuopio-ischaemic-heart-disease-risk-factor-study/1929E2CC34B0A504B3A045FAA0569CA3

6http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html?via=gdpr-consent

7https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/huge-reduction-in-meat-eating-essential-to-avoid-climate-breakdown

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