Meatless Mondays? No, thanks.

I’ve been listening more and more about this concept of “Meatless Mondays” whereby you don’t eat any kind of meat on Mondays in order to reduce the “pressure” on the animal meat industry and maybe also improve your health. Then, today, I read this blog post from an MPH student, and it just took me over the edge. No, I’m not angry or anything. I’m not even worked up.

Anti-vaccine types get me worked me up. But that’s a whole other post.

It just took me over the edge to want to write about it.

That post got my skeptically-inclined brain thinking. See, here is what the MPH student wrote:

As I read the assigned articles about Animal Ag for class, I felt myself sinking into the chair with a mix of regret and revulsion.  Among the facts and figures, three basic reasons for my personal vegetarianism emerged:

1) The meat we eat is full of toxins. Thanks to bio-accumulation, all the chemical pollution we’ve put into the environment for the last two or three hundred years gets increasingly more concentrated in the animals we’re eating.

2) Diets high in meat cause chronic disease.  Biologically, we’re not supposed to eat so much meat.  Because of the industrialization of Animal Ag, meat has become more accessible and affordable than ever in the last 50 years.  This increase in meat consumption has contributed to the rise in chronic disease, and not just in the U.S. and other developed nations – the trend is now spreading all over the world.

3) Current food sources are not sustainable.  This high-meat pattern can’t continue.  Right now, 2/3 of the world’s grain goes to feeding animal food sources, but it takes 3 lbs of grain to produce just 1 lb of chicken product – not too mention the amount of water that’s used in Animal Ag, which will become increasingly problematic as the world’s population grows.

Hmmm…

Things have changed since I went to MPH school. Then again, it’s Drexel, not George Washington. (We’re self-absorbed and thought we were very important at GW when I went there.)

DON’T SOAK THE MEAT

First, yes, there are some things that bio-accumulate in animals, but that accumulation is taken care of by the animals’ organs. Like with us, their livers are wonderful, wonderful things. Enzymes and other active chemicals do a heck of a job taking care of business. So the toxins accumulated in meat are really not that many. (God help you if you try to Google for the information. All sorts of natural-healing nuts come out. Seriously, soak your meat in clorox?) It also depends on what you mean by “toxins”. Do you mean the by-products of meat spoilage? Or do you mean heavy metals like mercury? Because I have news for you… Anything in the environment also accumulates in plants.

The whole planet is covered in a thin layer of lead (Pb) because we used it gasoline for so long. So it and other metals and compounds are everywhere, in everything… But it’s the dose that makes the poison.

BRING ME BISON!

Next, the claim that we’re not supposed to eat meat as a primary source of food seems a bit of a stretch. Let’s think about that for a second and look back a few thousand years in human evolution. What were we before we started agriculture? That’s right, we were hunter-gatherers. That is, we hunted animals and ate them year-round. Not only that, but meat was our primary source of energy during the winter months when fruits and berries were not around for us to gather. Heck, we domesticated cattle, sheep, and pigs to eat them… A long time ago.

If there has been an increase in chronic health conditions along with an increase in meat consumption, it’s because of the increase in consumption of saturated fats and the reduction of physical activity. That all leads to obesity, which leads to chronic health conditions. Hunter-gatherers of the last Ice Age were not fat because they had to chase their meat down and kill it. Eating all that meat was a delicious treat that would provide energy for the next hunt. (Hint: Meat consumption is a confounder for chronic disease.)

IT’S BAD, BUT IT CAN GET BETTER

Finally, I agree that the way we raise meat for consumption is not sustainable. On the other hand, meat provides the best source for protein that we have. Until we can raise chickens in test tubes and without excess organs, we can only rely on the cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals that are used for meat. Their protein is not currently replaceable by other sources. Rice and beans come close, but not close enough. They don’t have cobalamin (vitamin B12).

Listen, I understand that the meat industry has a lot of problems. It really does. I remember going with my grandfather to the slaughterhouse to pick up animal hides. I got to see how they killed animals. It wasn’t pretty. Later in life, I got a tour of a meat-packing/processing plant in Nebraska. That wasn’t pretty either. It wasn’t pretty for the animals or for the workers.

But things can and will improve if the right kinds of pressures are applied to the industry. While it may seem like a worthwhile endeavor to forgo meat on Mondays, lots and lots of families and individuals don’t have that luxury. They need to eat whatever meat they can. (And there are some of us who could skip a meat meal once in a while.)

SO WHAT TO DO? WHAT TO DO?

I say we continue to eat meat, but we eat it from sustainable, responsible sources, even if it costs a little more. I say we talk to our elected representatives and leaders to make sure that the meat and poultry industries move toward a more sustainable, humane model. And I say that we eat leaner cuts of meat, ones without so much saturated fat, which is the real demon in the freezer.

But that’s just me.

Pepperoni Pizza
Mmmmm… Meat.

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen