The EAT Lancet Commission has just released a new, drastic recommendation for a global dietary shift. Their “flexitarian” diet recommends less than half an ounce of red meat per day, less than one ounce of white meat per day, one ounce of fish a day, 1/4 of an egg, and 9 ounces of milk (or a “dairy equivalent,” which would mean about 2oz of cheese) per day.
To give you a sense of how small half an ounce is, consider this image of a 4oz steak… Cut this steak into 8 pieces. You can eat less than 1/8th of this steak. A small bite, that’s it.
This means the average person would be tripling their consumption of beans and pulses, and more than quadrupling their intake of nuts and seeds. Here’s the actual breakdown of what’s allowed in EAT Lancet’s report.
A few things annoy me about this, like how we’re “allowed” to eat more calories from sugar than from meat or eggs.
Palm oil has its own category even though most places can’t grow palm, it needs to be transported, and the growing methods are not sustainable… and yet we can’t eat any butter. The report is recommending we reduce processed foods yet the fats recommended are ultra-processed, inflammatory seed oils.
We’re being told to eat more calories worth of fruit than vegetables (fruits are not as nutritious as vegetables and for those looking to improve their metabolic health, fruit will not help). And at over 800 calories a day, who is really going to be eating unprocessed, “whole” grains? Thanks to the American Heart Association, most people think sugary breakfast cereals are a “whole grain” food.
How will people interpret this? As a dietitian, I consider Nutrigrain bars more like a cookie than a breakfast item, however I believe people are going to interpret foods like cereal bars, because of their “whole grain” claims, an appropriate breakfast food.
The average consumer is not eating brown rice and wheat berries, and to vilify eggs and meat will do more harm than good. When we’re seeing diabetes-level blood sugar spikes in healthy people (who are now the minority) after eating a bowl of corn flakes and milk, clearly the recommendation to eat 60% of calories from grains is not a good idea.
I’m sure many others in the real food community will have different things to say about the high amount of grains and oils, which I have a major problem with. Because there were just so many things to unpack in the paper, and I’m currently making a film about the nutritional and environmental benefits of “better meat“, I’m going to dive into the anti-meat claims for this post.
Others in the real food community have already written here and here about some of the bias and potential conflicts of interest behind the authors of the EAT Lancet report. Those who feel that meat eaters are as bad as smokers and should eat their meals outside of the restaurant are obviously not coming from a place of reason and should be removed from decisions involving dietary policy. And while the EAT Lancet paper admits that “animal production can also be essential for supporting livelihoods, grassland ecosystem services, poverty alleviation, and benefits of nutritional status the advice is “meat is bad for your health and the environment”.
1. There’s No Proof That Meat Will Kill You
The EAT Lancet report greatly exaggerates the studies linking meat eating to poor health. The studies vilifying the health effects of meat are based on observational epidemiology, which can’t show actual cause, only associations. Lots of things are associated with other things, like this example:
Vegetarians tend to shop at health food stores, do yoga, don’t drink as much as meat eaters, and generally have a healthier lifestyle than someone on a typical Western diet. When all of these lifestyle factors are accounted for, a recent, very large study found “no significant difference in all-cause mortality for vegetarians versus non-vegetarians.” In fact, this study concluded, “a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.”
The link between bacon/processed meats and colon cancer is also completely overblown. The odds of developing colon cancer from eating processed meats are statistically insignificant. The risk of developing cancer from eating about 2 pieces of bacon per day is 18%, which sounds high, but really when you consider the average risk of developing colon cancer is 5%, eating bacon would only increase your risk to 6%. That’s a lot different than smoking cigarettes, which raises your risk of cancer by 2360%.
2. We Need MORE Protein
The EAT Lancet report says that 0.8g/kg of bodyweight, or about 10% of overall calories is “adequate” for protein intake, but that children and older people may require more and also acknowledges that animal sources are the best source of protein.
The truth is, 0.8g/kg is the minimum, not the optimal amount for most people. As the most satiating macronutrient, protein from animals is the lowest calorie way to fill up and get the majority of your micronutrients. Many studies have shown that anyone who is growing, metabolically broken (that’s half of Americans), highly stressed, wanting to lose weight, wanting to gain muscle, recovering from illness or is over 40 years old, probably does better with at least double the RDA of protein, about 20% of overall calories or 1.6g/kg. I wrote a long post about protein requirements here and the New York Times also has an article saying everyone over 40 should get twice the RDA of protein.
Given that most of our population is metabolically broken, and the researchers recognize that there are metabolic benefits to increased protein intake, yet we’re also trying to reduce overall caloric intake, it would make a lot of sense to recommend more animal protein instead of beans and nuts. Trying to get your protein from beans and nuts means you’ll have to eat a ton of calories and extra carbohydrates to get it.
3. Animal Protein is Superior to Legumes and Nuts
As omnivores, our bodies were meant to digest animal fats and proteins, and we naturally produce acids and bile to break down protein quite easily. Protein provides the building blocks of our bodies, and animal sources are the most complete protein sources because they contain all of the amino acids we need for optimal health. The heme iron in steak is the best, most bioavailable source of iron, and a small 4oz serving of beef contains 95% of the DRI for B12, something you can’t get from plants.
Iron and B12 are two of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide according to the CDC. B12 deficiency in particular can cause permanent brain damage to developing infants and is most common in vegetarians and vegans. The diet recommended by EAT Lancet does not provide enough B12 and requires supplementation. In fact, most of the vitamins and minerals we need are best found, and best absorbed from animal sources, not from plants. How nutritious, environmentally friendly, or ethical is it to advise a nutrient deficient diet to the global population?
Let’s compare 4oz of cooked kidney beans to 4oz of a cooked sirloin steak…
To get the same amount of protein in a 4oz steak (181 calories) you’d need to eat 12 oz of kidney beans (almost one pound!) plus a cup of rice, which equals 638 calories, and 122g of carbs. Imagine trying to get 100g of protein from this sort of diet!
Since most of us aren’t looking to eat MORE calories or excess carbohydrates, beef is the clear winner. Fish, shellfish and other animal proteins are also superior to beans in terms of calories, vitamins and minerals. And speaking of methane emissions, beans don’t necessarily have the reputation as the most easily digested food (ahem, the magical fruit?). Excessive flatulence is not only uncomfortable, it’s embarrassing!
What about nuts? To get the 30g of protein from almonds, you would need to consume a little over 1 cup of chopped almonds, which is over 850 calories and 75g of fat. YIKES!
4. Dairy Can Be a Problem for More Than Half of the World
The EAT Lancet recommendation to consume 9 oz of milk (or “dairy equivalents”, which would mean about 2oz of cheese) daily is inappropriate for a global dietary recommendation. Approximately 65% of the population experiencing some form of lactose intolerance. In certain ethnicities, up to 90% of adults have issues with milk. It can cause hormonal and digestive disturbances, acne, and weight gain for some.
While I feel that meat is a much more vital as a food source than milk, I do believe that full fat, grass-fed (and especially fermented) dairy is certainly a nutrient dense food, and can be produced in a regenerative way. However, guidelines saying that we consume more dairy than meat are not based on sound evidence. More on meat vs. milk here.
5. Reducing Animal Consumption Will Increase Nutrient Deficiencies
Red meat is important to the global human diet and “its contribution of protein and key micronutrients is under-appreciated.” A recent study looked at what might happen if the entire US eliminated animal products from our diet. Overall calories would go up (we’re already having an issue with overconsumption of calories) and nutrient deficiencies would also increase. And what about all of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Overall emissions would be reduced by a mere 2.6%. It turns out, eliminating animals would “create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements.”
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency and is most prevalent in women of childbearing age and children. In children, it can cause developmental delays and behavioral issues. Vegetarians are commonly iron deficient, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Heme iron, found in red meat, is the most absorbable kind of iron, two to three times better than plant-based iron, and absorption is also dependent on current iron stores. In New Zealand, hospitalizations for iron deficiency have doubled over the last 10 years as red meat consumption has declined. Vegetarianism in New Zealand is up nearly 30%, and of those who do eat meat, they’re eating more than twice as much chicken and pork, yet beef and lamb consumption are dramatically down.
Early signs of iron deficiency include fatigue, light headedness, and shortness of breath. In children, iron deficiency is quite serious and can cause failure to thrive. After reviewing the various foods recommended in the EAT Lancet diet, I can’t figure out how someone could get adequate iron without fortification or supplements, especially given that soy and components in beans, like phytic acid, can inhibit iron absorption.
Getting adequate vitamin A is another problem with the prescribed diet from EAT Lancet. Plant foods contain an inactive form of vitamin A called beta-carotene. The conversion into active vitamin A is pretty inefficient. Almost half of the population have a gene that reduces the conversion of beta-carotine to vitamin A by approximately 70%.
I also don’t see how this diet meets the calcium requirements. The calcium found in plant foods is not as bioavailable as calcium from foods like dairy and sardines. Low calcium, together with vitamin D (another nutrient low in vegan diets) is a very big concern for bone health. Fracture rates are 30% higher in vegans than in those who consume animal products.
Research shows that expecting mothers who don’t eat meat are more likely to experience premature delivery and low birth weight newborns. Other nutrients of concern for those on meat-free diets include glycine, selenium, methionine, taurine, creatine, choline, and iodine. Iodine deficiency can lead to brain damage and irreversible mental retardation. Among the most concerning nutrient deficiencies shown in the vegetarian and vegan population is vitamin B12. A deficiency in B12 can cause depression, psychosis and cognitive impairment. Plant foods like seaweed, brewer’s yeast and fermented soy contain B12 analogs and not the true form of B12. These analogs actually increase your need for the true form of B12.
In developing countries where malnutrition is still a very real problem, reducing meat to this tiny level will have serious consequences. When people don’t have access to supplements or highly processed and expensive veggie burgers, and their land is only suited to grazing animals, eliminating the majority of their nutrient dense food to replace it with grains and nuts from far away is not a sustainable, healthy or ethical solution.
Another post that does a great job of pointing out exactly how the EAT Lancet diet will not meet basic nutrient needs for a human can be found on Zoe Harcombe’s site, and my friend Marty Kendall wrote this excellent critique looking at the poor nutrient density of the EAT Lancet diet, showing that it’s even worse than the current US Dietary Guidelines.
6. Our Food System is Not Producing Enough Fruits and Vegetables
A recent study found that if everyone ate Harvard’s guidelines for recommended fruits, vegetables and proteins, we wouldn’t have enough of them.
“Results show that the global system currently overproduces grains, fats and sugars, while production of fruits and vegetables and, to a smaller degree, protein is not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the current population.”
We’d also have more food waste in this new diet scenario, not less. Cereals, fruit and vegetables make up the largest majority of food waste right now, not meat. Let’s face it, we’re really great at producing human “feed” – nutrient poor and shelf stable sugar, grains, and industrial seed oils that cause diabetes and inflammation.
7. Beef is a Protein Contributor to the Food System
Because 90% of what cattle consume is not edible by humans, and because they graze on land that can’t be cropped, cattle actually generate more protein to the food supply than would exist without them. I speak more about this in the environmental sections below, but ruminant animals like cattle actually expand the capabilities of our usable land by converting food we can’t eat on land we can’t crop into protein. They actually “upcycle”nutrient poor food into nutrient dense food. If we need to feed a growing population, we need to utilize brittle, rocky, steep areas that can’t grow crops like corn. If we don’t graze it with edible animals, we lose the capacity to use that land for food, and the land suffers, too! Contrary to the mainstream dialogue, eliminating beef will not “free up” tons of extra food for fighting hunger.
8. Ultra-Processed Food is the Problem!
If we want to blame a dietary category, it’s certainly not red meat, as our consumption (less than 2oz per day in the US) is less than it was in 1970. What we are consuming more of is refined oils and highly processed grains. Perhaps that’s what we should be focusing on?
What we need for people, especially those who are overweight or have metabolic syndrome/type 2 diabetes, is protein that has fewer calories and carbohydrates, so basically, this is the exact opposite of wheat, corn, beans and rice. The best source of protein is animals. Animal flesh is a more nutrient-dense, bioavailable, complete protein and happens to have fewer calories per gram than plants. Read more on that here.
9. Not All Agricultural Land Can Be Cropped
EAT Lancet seems to ignore the fact that not all land can be cultivated for crops. Just because you remove animals, doesn’t mean you can just go grow some lentils or kale there. More than 40 percent of the land in the contiguous U.S. is pasture and rangeland that is too rocky, steep, and/or arid to support cultivated agriculture – yet this land can support cattle and protein upcycling. Ninety percent of what cattle eat is forage and plant leftovers that people can’t eat. While industrially-raised chicken does eat primarily grains grown on cropland, 85% of the cattle raised for beef graze land that can’t be used for growing crops.
10. Cattle Can Graze Crop Residue
What other miracle food can covert “food waste” into protein while depositing fertilizer? If this field wasn’t grazed, the cornstalks would emit greenhouse gasses as they decompose anyway. Cattle ranchers are also grazing harvested wheat fields and other crops. Ranchers are also using another technique grazing cattle and goats among edible fruit and nut trees, called silvopasture. On the farm where I live, sheep love cleaning up our broccoli fields, converting broccoli stalks into meat and wool. Pigs do very well grazing apple orchards and converting fallen apples that would normally be considered waste into bacon. The animals can keep the weeds and brush down, improve the fertility and water holding capacity of the soil, AND produce meat while not taking up “extra space”.
11. Methane Claims Against Cattle are Overblown
The methane emissions arguments commonly cited against beef are also overblown. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, greenhouse gas from beef cattle only represents 2% of emissions in U.S. By contrast, transportation accounts for 27% of emissions in the U.S., representing a far more impactful opportunity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I just released a podcast with Frank Mitloehner, an expert in greenhouse gas emissions in animal agriculture, who explains what the real problem is in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and why methane emissions from cattle are exaggerated. Plus, he weighs in on how ruminant animals upcycle nutrients.
12. Well-Managed Cattle Can SEQUESTER Carbon
Cattle, when managed well, can actually be part of the climate SOLUTION. A new study has just come out from Michigan State: Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems was published in Agricultural Systems. The researchers tracked carbon sequestration over four years. And although the feedlot system produced less emissions (in terms of cow farts,) when looking at the entire lifecycle system, well-managed cattle on grass (moved to new pasture frequently) produced a net carbon SINK. The emissions were completely offset by the amount of carbon sequestered in the ground. And not just a little bit of carbon, it was a significant amount.
13. Grazing Ruminants Improve Biodiversity, and Other Ecological Markers
Cattle grazing on land we can’t farm, producing high quality protein and micronutrients from food we can’t eat seems like a win to me. Also, well-managed cattle can improve the water-holding capacity of the land, which makes rainfall more effective and they increase biodiversity. Why is that important? Because the more diverse an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is. We need more variety, not less. If we instead plow up every inch of space possible to plant vast fields of one crop using chemicals to annihilate all insects and weeds, we will further deteriorate our soil health. A food system without animals is simply unhealthy and unsustainable and the opposite of the direction we should be going in. We need more regenerative farming, and this includes grazing animals.
14. A Meat Tax is a Bad Idea
Furthermore, a meat tax, as I’m sure the experts are aware, is simply a tax on the poor. This past weekend I had to run to the store and took a quick photo of the items on the belt in front of my order. This customer had soda, cookies, cupcakes, donuts, some deli meat and bacon. As a dietitian, the MOST healthy items in her cart by far are the bacon and deli meat. Let’s be real about what’s causing our obesity and diabetes epidemic.
Do you think this person is going to switch to a whole foods, unprocessed grains and tofu plus palm oil diet anytime soon? Can she even cook or have access to a stove? Does she know what this food is doing to her? Is longevity at the top of her priority list, or perhaps do you think she might have other problems that are taking a front seat to better health?
Most people buy processed meat because it’s cheaper and easier to prepare than fresh meat. For those with limited income and who are food insecure, a tax on processed meats will not mean that they will spend more on fresh meat, it will mean that their grocery dollars will simply be spent on more ultra-processed foods. Cheap, nutrient poor food tastes really good. It’s addictive, and it’s accessible. When there are really smart people working in labs to make sure “you can’t eat just one,” it can be quite a challenge to turn eating habits around, especially when better health is not on the top of their to-do list.
Instead of penalizing those who are making bad food choices, why not start at the source? How about eliminating subsidies that encourage the production of cheap, nutrient-poor food instead?
15. Many People Depend on Livestock
In her book, Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman also points out the very important concept that domestic animals are of huge nutritional and food security importance in developing countries. Many poor people depend on livestock, and eliminating animals from the food system would actually increase hunger and poverty, leading to more people relying on the government for food assistance. Nicolette writes, “In contrast with crop farming, which produces sporadic, seasonal, perishable products, livestock is an asset that can be maintained for short or long periods of time then quickly converted to food or cash when needed.”
Since crop farming requires good soil with few rocks, access to steady rainfall or irrigation, and can only be harvested at a specific time, it’s a much less secure source of food. Animals are also mobile, think about how important that is to someone who doesn’t have the money to own land. They also require less attention and resources than cropping, and can multiply on their own (no need to buy seeds from Monsanto!).
16. We Have No Right Forcing People to Eat “Our” Way
No matter what your individual dietary philosophy, you can’t legislate that people eat a certain way. First of all, this just won’t work. People are going to eat what they want to eat. Processed food tastes good and a lot of people just will not give it up.
I also think it’s unethical to force people to eat a diet that relies on foods not from that region and that are not culturally appropriate. The idea that a group of privileged, wealthy, white, thin people can come up with one global dietary solution is insane. Below is a perfect example of how wrong we’ve gotten everything:
Should we be telling the Nunavik, a population that has traditionally relied on wild meats (not bananas) that their traditional foods are in the “red” category and will cause heart disease because they’re too high in saturated fats? Instead, the encouraged foods are bananas, orange juice, watermelon and 6-8 servings of grains like bread, rice and processed cereals. How is this ok?
I recently had an exchange with a vegan on my instagram page insisting that the proposed law forcing restaurants in Los Angeles to serve vegan entrees was a good idea. She actually thinks that she is entitled to require by law, private businesses to cater to her dietary preferences. She argued that being vegan was much more serious than an anaphylactic nut allergy, and a law is the only way to make sure she can find animal-free food when eating out. How is this level of egocentrism ok? I personally have celiac disease and do not expect restaurants to cater to me – if they do, great, but I don’t feel it’s ethical to force them by law to cater to my restrictions. There are people out there who will die when exposed to certain foods, yet there are no laws requiring restaurants to cater to nut free, gluten free, or any other special diets. Why should those on a vegan diet get a special law? I’m totally fine if someone personally chooses to eat a certain way, but to demand others to accommodate by law is definitely not ok.
The EAT Lancet dietary recommendations effectively are pushing a meat-phobic dietary ideology on the globe, and are trying to make these ideas (based on very shaky science) enforceable by government policies.
17. Not Everyone Has Access to Local Fresh Produce, Which Often Has Higher Emissions than Meat
Fresh produce is not grown year round in all locations, not available to everyone, and by calorie, weight, and micronutrients, more expensive than meat. Oh, and lettuce has three times the GHG emissions of bacon and fruit has the largest water and energy footprint per calorie. I didn’t see this mentioned in the EAT Lancet report.
18. There Are Other Ways to Improve Your Diet
The truth is that we don’t know that much about nutrition and certainly should never be setting global dietary policy based on epidemiology (the studies that can only show associations and not prove cause). Why not take into account food traditions that communities have thrived on for centuries, climate-appropriateness of a region being able to produce and store that food?
Given how little we understand about human nutrition, and that processed foods are generally nutrient-poor and not what humans evolved eating, how about just starting there, by encouraging folks to cook at home and generally eat less ultra-processed foods?
How about adopting a general guideline similar to Brazil’s Guidelines:
1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking
3. Limit consumption of processed foods (meaning bread or canned fruits vs. fresh fruits)
4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods (meaning sugar sweetened beverages, candy, chips, etc.)
5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
7. Develop, exercise and share cooking skills
8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing
Many different diets that are radically different to the EAT Lancet global diet recommendations are reversing diseases like type 2 diabetes. Clinical trials have shown remission from diabetes on a high fat, moderate protein, low carb (ketogenic) diet that includes much more animal products than the diet EAT Lancet recommends. While I don’t feel the ketogenic diet needs to be THE global dietary solution, the Virta trial certainly shows that there shouldn’t be only one diet for all people, and that we should be thinking outside of the box and nutritional epidemiology if we’re going to solve our type 2 diabetes crisis. Traditionally, humans have lived a very healthy life on a wide variety of macronutrient ratios and it seems clear that once modern, ultra-processed foods enters the picture, the wheels fall off.
19. There Are More Effective Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
And what are the things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint? According to a recent meta-analysis, having one less child (in industrialized nations), which was shown by far to have the biggest impact, followed by living “car-free”, avoiding one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight, and buying “green” energy have much more of an effect on our carbon footprint than our dietary choices.
20. Red Meat Has Unfairly Become the Scapegoat
Frédéric Leroy believes that red meat is a convenient scapegoat, absorbing our stress about climate change and our failing health, and I completely agree. There is no one perfect human diet for all health conditions and ecological regions, and to prescribe one for the entire globe is ridiculous. Its time to look at the evidence we do have, admit what we don’t know, and stop targeting meat as the cause of global warming and modern disease. We clearly have problems with our food production system (both in the way we crop and in our industrial meat production system). With less than 60 years of farming left at our current rate of soil degradation, focusing on our soil health (which includes the use of well-managed animals) is critical. Working on fixing HOW we produce food would be much more effective than focusing on WHAT we’re producing.
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