Half of Americans Know About Meatless Monday. Should They?

According to a recent survey, a full 50% of Americans know about Meatless Monday.

This came as a surprise to me because, though I go meatless every day, and though I read incessantly about food issues, I still have only a faint awareness of the program myself.

Meatless Monday is, according to its website, a program that aims to get every American to take one day off each week from eating meat.  The idea is to improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint, and cut our use of water and fossil fuel.  All worthy goals.  All spread by famous proponents from Oprah to celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Oprah Winfrey Show

Spreading the Word, as Only She Can

But will taking a day off from eating meat actually promote the goals the program wishes to achieve?

For the most part, yes.  There is little question that meat consumption raises our carbon footprint, uses absurd amounts of water and chews up massive quantities of fossil fuel.  In each case this is largely due to the fact that it takes eight to ten calories of feed to produce one calorie of beef (statistics for chicken and pork differ but the underlying problem remains for them too).  And it takes water and fossil fuel to produce that feed, and to transport it from where it’s grown to where the animals end up eating it.  If we simply ate the feed (largely corn and soybeans) ourselves, rather than eating the animals that first eat it, we’d cut our own carbon footprint, fossil fuel and water use by a comparable factor of 8 to 10 times.

These are compelling enough reasons alone to reduce the amount of meat we eat each week.  And I can think of some more reasons that meatlessmonday.com doesn’t mention: it saves a number of animals a lifetime of what I find it hard to avoid calling torture, and it frees up vegetable food for the 2 billion people the earth is currently failing adequately to feed.

But one concern Meatless Monday cites that I’m not so sure about is health.  Meatlessmonday.com claims that reducing meat consumption will “reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.”  Will it?

Cancer and cardiovascular disease I’m willing to accept because studies, and anecdotal evidence, does seem to suggest that the more fruits and vegetables–and hence likely the fewer animal products–a person eats, the lower that person’s risk of certain types of cancer and heart disease.  (Though if you’re replacing meat with cheese, eggs or other dairy products on your Meatless Mondays, you may not be benefiting your body in even these ways.)

I’m less certain that diabetes and obesity stem from eating meat.  I, during my meat eating days of old, have lost significant weight by shifting from a typical American diet to one centered primarily around animal products.  (Something akin to the “Atkins Diet.”)  Unhealthy?  Maybe.  But I sure wasn’t getting obese eating large amounts of meat, eggs, cheese and other dairy.

And because type-2 diabetes is so strongly correlated to obesity and obesity is so strongly correlated to pre-diabetic conditions that tend to lead to diabetes, I hesitate to accept that meat eating predisposes us to diabetes.  Certain forms of cancer and heart disease perhaps.  But I’m not sure what evidence is out there that meat eating can cause diabetes.

Note that this defense of meat is coming from a vegan.

So, on the balance I’m all for meatless Mondays.  (Or, Meatless Everydays.)  But I also wonder whether the claimed health benefits from Meatless Mondays are all that good a reason for the change.  If you’re replacing meat with whole fruits and vegetables, then I imagine it cannot hurt.  If you’re replacing it with refined carbohydrates, or with other animal products, then I imagine the health consequences are far smaller, if not adverse.

Have you heard of Meatless Monday?  Do you observe?

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