Its Smart to be Meat-free | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Its Smart to be Meat-free

Its Smart to be Meat-free

The consequences of being a meat-eater


By Viva!Health’s Dr Justine Butler

The meat-free food market is booming. Food company Quorn say that (egg-free) vegan lines will hit supermarket shelves in September, Ikea are introducing vegan meatballs and Jamie Oliver says the future is plant-based! Analysts Mintel say 12 per cent of UK adults are vegetarian or vegan and one in eight meat-eaters would like to eat less meat. There’s a growing awareness of the environmental impact of livestock farming.

New dietary guidelines issued by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have finally addressed the effects of diet on the environment as well as health and have called for a reduction in meat consumption – and the meat industry is up in arms. In the UK, however, there is a resounding silence from our government as it bows to huge pressure from the £7.5 billion meat industry.

A report on why some vegetarians return to eating meat found that those who stayed meat-free did so for ethical, ecological and social reasons. The motivation for ‘meat-returners’ originally shunning meat had been health. So why is the health argument failing?

Poor journalism and celebrity doctors are sending mixed messages. Recent headlines declared: “Saturated fat ‘ISN’T bad for your heart’” but were based on a study that received overwhelming criticism. Professor Walter Willett, Harvard School of Public Health, said it contained major errors and omissions and the conclusions were seriously misleading. All major health organisations still agree – saturated fat is a risk factor for heart disease.

In the BBC Horizon programme Should I Eat Meat? The Big Health Dilemma, Dr Michael Mosley ate 130g of red meat daily for a month – similar to a fifth of people in the UK. He gained three kilos around his tummy, a place where extra weight can lead to diabetes and heart disease, and his blood pressure and cholesterol levels both soared.

At the end of the programme, Michael and his wife agreed they would cut back on processed meat but continue to eat red meat a couple of times a week – a bit like agreeing to smoke only on Fridays! The truth is, doctors and journalists are reluctant to rock a boat that desperately needs rocking!


Red and processed meats can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer by 20-30 per cent and cancers of the pancreas and stomach. The World Cancer Research Fund say that people should “Eat mostly foods of plant origin, limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat”. That means no sausages or bacon – ever! A review of studies with over 1.5 million participants found that people who ate the most processed meat were more likely to suffer an early death from heart disease and stroke. There’s yet to be a study that says we should eat more meat – and sausages are not part of your five-a-day.


Vegetarians are healthier! Europe’s largest study of vegetarians, the EPIC Oxford study, confirms that vegetarians weigh less, have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and rates of type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. A vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of heart disease by a third. A study from the University of Oxford, the largest yet comparing cardiovascular disease rates between vegetarians and meat-eaters, found that vegetarians have a 32 per cent lower risk of hospitalisation or death from cardiovascular disease than people who eat meat and fish. 

Eat mostly foods of plant origin

Avoiding meat can also lower cancer risk. A UK study of over 60,000 people found cancer incidence was 11 per cent lower in vegetarians and 19 per cent lower in vegans than meat-eaters. A large study from the US reported similar findings. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that up to 80 per cent of cases of heart disease, 90 per cent of type 2 diabetes and one third of cancers could be avoided by changing to a healthier diet, increasing physical activity and stopping smoking. They say there are health benefits in eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrain foods and moving to unsaturated, plant-based fats.


All the key nutrients, including omega-3 fats, protein, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamins D and B12 can be obtained from a vegan diet. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) say: “…appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” They also provide all the protein you need during every stage of life, including pregnancy, breast-feeding, childhood and adolescence. Athletes also get plenty – just look at British vegan marathon runner and triple world record winner, Fiona Oakes, or US track-and-field legend Carl Lewis. Sadly, many sports nutritionists lag behind the science.

Another misplaced concern is that vegetarians miss out on iron. Iron deficiency is no more common among vegetarians than meat-eaters. The EPIC Oxford study compared over 33,000 meat-eaters, 18,000 vegetarians and 2,500 vegans and found that vegans had the highest intake of iron, followed by vegetarians then meat-eaters. There’s irony for you!

Any idea that red meat fuels sex drive is nonsense

It is also a misconception that vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods. B12 is made by bacteria and that’s where animals obtain it – and we can do the same. Industrially grown B12 is used in fortified foods and supplements and is more easily absorbed by the body than from meat. The US Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that all adults over 50, whatever their diet, take B12 supplements or fortified foods.

Any idea that red meat fuels sex drive is nonsense. Fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods keep the blood pumping and protect against blocked arteries and heart disease. In fact impotence can be an early warning of heart disease. Vegan fire-fighter Rip Esselstyn, son of esteemed heart surgeon Caldwell Esselstyn, says: “The canary in the coal mine when it comes to heart disease is an underperforming penis”.

Despite all advice to the contrary, chicken is not a ‘healthy’ option. Selective breeding and intensive farming have changed the nature of chicken meat, which now contains more than twice as much fat than it did in 1940.


Livestock farming is inefficient and wasteful; it pollutes oceans, rivers and air, uses up water, oil and coal, devastates ecosystems and contributes to climate change. The United Nations’ report Livestock’s Long Shadow revealed how livestock farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined (cars, buses, trucks, trains, planes and ships)!

What’s the connection between a cheeseburger and deforestation? Soya! All across the world, forests are being felled to grow it and almost all is fed to animals or used to pad out meat pies, pasties and other manufactured foods. Meat is so inefficient that a vegetarian world would require less than half the current amount of agricultural land and less than a quarter in a vegan world – according to Reading University. That on its own would cure most environmental problems.

Treating animals this way is not without consequence

Water is also implicated, with 10 times more being required to produce animal protein than vegetable protein. Not surprisingly, leading scientists have issued stern warnings about global food supplies, saying that the world may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet to avoid catastrophic shortages and that meat production at current levels is unsustainable


The growing demand for cheap meat has led to a drop in welfare standards as factory-farming methods intensify. Chickens crammed into sheds with no room for compassion, mothering sows routinely caged to deliver and feed their young and zero-grazing cows that never see grass. Every year in Britain, over a billion animals face slaughter having spent their short lives in confinement, pain and misery.

Treating animals this way is not without consequence for us and over 90 per cent of retail chickens are contaminated with faecal matter. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) also found that seven in 10 supermarket chickens were infected with the food poisoning bug, Campylobacter. Then there is horsemeat, E. coli O157, avian flu, BSE… It’s a wonder anyone risks eating meat!












A quick trip around the human body reveals that we share more characteristics with herbivores than we do carnivores. Cats, dogs and wolves have strong jaws which can only open and shut and not move side to side; they have sharp teeth and claws to tear off chunks of raw meat and ‘wolf’ them down. Their acidic stomachs help digest flesh whilst short intestines allow the quick expulsion of rotting meat. Rabbits, horses and sheep chew from side-to-side, their saliva contains digestive enzymes and they have longer intestines to absorb nutrients. Raw meat is hard for humans to cope with and may have prompted the introduction of cooking, say researchers from Harvard.

Supporters of the Paleo (huntergatherer) diet say the mismatch between a Paleo-style high protein meaty/fishy diet and a modern diet, including grains and pulses, is to blame for most ailments. Research paints a different picture. Humans continued to evolve past the Palaeolithic era well into Neolithic times and early farmers relied more heavily on plant protein than previously thought. There is no scientific evidence to support the Paleo diet.

A recent study in Nature put to bed the notion that meat made us smart. A high-quality, largely plant-based diet, some of which was cooked, did contribute to rapid growth of the human brain. But that was not all – energy saved by walking upright, growing more slowly and reproducing later all fuelled the growth in brain size. Prehistoric humans ate some meat but it didn’t make them smart!

The truly smart thing to do is give up meat and dairy entirely because the benefits are just so profound.