USDA: Don't go meatless, not even one day a week

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in a peculiar position.  They are tasked with two potentially contradictory missions: 1- promoting the sales of American agricultural commodities and 2- providing dietary recommendations to guide Americans toward healthy choices.  Clearly, this is a conflict of interest. For example, the USDA advises reducing saturated fat (“solid fats”), while simultaneously promoting sales and consumption of cheese, the primary source of saturated fat in the American diet.

USDA MyPlate

If the USDA aims to help Americans make healthier choices, they need to recommend eating less of something – and the meat, dairy, egg and sugar industries all put pressure on the USDA not to single out of any of their products as a “food to reduce.”

Science-based guidelines constructed by the USDA are inevitably corrupted by political and economic forces. As a result, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans has consistently included recommendations for excessive amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy products, and underemphasized the importance of vegetables, beans, fruits, and nuts. Consequently many Americans think that humans need dairy products to get adequate calcium, meat to get adequate protein, etc. Any advice that refers to reducing animal foods is purposely vague, referring to food components rather than specific foods: “Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fatty acids” and “Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol” rather than explicitly “Limit meat, eggs and cheese.”

The USDA’s inability to produce science-based recommendations was clearly illustrated in events that transpired earlier this week. An internal USDA newsletter that discussed ways that staff at USDA headquarters can reduce their environmental impact, circulated earlier in the week, offering a suggestion that employees consider taking part in the Meatless Monday initiative:

Meatless Monday“One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the “Meatless Monday” initiative http://www.meatlessmonday.com/. This international effort, as the name implies, encourages people not to eat meat on Mondays. Meatless Monday is an initiative of The Monday Campaign Inc. in association with the John Hopkins School of Public Health.

How will going meatless one day of the week help the environment? The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources.  It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides.  In addition there are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. While a vegetarian diet could have a beneficial impact on a person’s health and the environment, many people are not ready to make that commitment. Because Meatless Monday involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results.”

This newsletter provoked a harsh response from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA).  The President of NCBA called the Meatless Monday initiative “an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption,” claimed that the newsletter “calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers,” and even went so far as to say, “When it comes to health, beef has an amazing story to tell. Beef is a naturally nutrient-rich food, helping you get more nutrition from the calories you take in.”

Of course, abstaining from meat one day a week is not nearly enough to bring about excellent health (and it is astounding that so many Americans consider going without meat for one day a hardship). However, healthful, plant-centered eating is gaining momentum: news reports about the disease-reversing power of plant foods are becoming more and more common. The lack of safety of factory-farmed animal products are coming to light with more and more food recalls and stories of dangerous contaminations with fecal bacteria. The public was outraged about “pink slime.” People are looking for ways to reduce the amount of animal products in their diets. The cattlemen are worried, and rightfully so.

The USDA quelled the NCBA’s outrage by responding with a statement saying that the newsletter was posted without proper clearance, and bluntly stating “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday.”

Several studies have drawn links between higher red meat or total meat consumption and premature death.1-5 The links between meat and chronic disease are numerous:

  • Cooking meats (not just red meats) at high temperatures produces dietary carcinogens.6  
  • Additional carcinogens are formed from meats during the digestion process.7-9 
  • Excess heme iron (found only in animal foods) is an oxidant that contributes to cardiovascular disease and dementia.10, 11
  • High milk consumption is associated with increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancers.12, 13
  • Animal protein raises blood IGF-1 levels, and elevated IGF-1 is linked to increased cancer risk.14, 15
  • The World Cancer Research Fund, in a 2011 update of their comprehensive report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer,, has declared that red and processed meats are a convincing cause of colon cancer.16

 

Yet, the USDA cannot make a simple suggestion to abstain from meat one-seventh of the time.

 

Although the USDA’s original position was related to environment not health, it is clear to see that the USDA is not prepared to make any recommendations that might upset the giants of animal agriculture.  Although USDA’s MyPlate was a small positive step, recommending that half of Americans’ plates consist of vegetables and fruits, this Meatless Monday situation shows that how heavily the USDA is influenced by the meat industry; they cannot possibly make recommendations that are science-based.

Bottom Line: don’t trust the USDA to tell you what to eat.  Let science guide your food choices; the foods consistently associated with reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and premature death are not meat and milk; they are vegetables, beans, fruits, seeds and nuts.

 

References:

1. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med 2012.
2. Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, et al. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:562-571.
3. Major JM, Cross AJ, Doubeni CA, et al. Socioeconomic deprivation impact on meat intake and mortality: NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Cancer Causes Control 2011;22:1699-1707.
4. Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:516S-524S.
5. Fraser GE. Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic white California Seventh-day Adventists. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:532S-538S.
6. Zheng W, Lee S-A. Well-Done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk. Nutr Cancer 2009;61:437-446.
7. WCRF/AICR Expert Report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective.: World Cancer Research Fund; 2007.
8. Lunn JC, Kuhnle G, Mai V, et al. The effect of haem in red and processed meat on the endogenous formation of N-nitroso compounds in the upper gastrointestinal tract. Carcinogenesis 2007;28:685-690.
9. Kuhnle GG, Story GW, Reda T, et al. Diet-induced endogenous formation of nitroso compounds in the GI tract. Free Radic Biol Med 2007;43:1040-1047.
10. Brewer GJ. Iron and copper toxicity in diseases of aging, particularly atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's disease. Exp Biol Med 2007;232:323-335.
11. Brewer GJ. Risks of copper and iron toxicity during aging in humans. Chem Res Toxicol 2010;23:319-326.
12. Larsson SC, Orsini N, Wolk A. Milk, milk products and lactose intake and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Int J Cancer 2006;118:431-441.
13. Qin LQ, Xu JY, Wang PY, et al. Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer in Western countries: evidence from cohort studies. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2007;16:467-476.
14. Thissen JP, Ketelslegers JM, Underwood LE. Nutritional regulation of the insulin-like growth factors. Endocr Rev 1994;15:80-101.
15. Kaaks R. Nutrition, insulin, IGF-1 metabolism and cancer risk: a summary of epidemiological evidence. Novartis Found Symp 2004;262:247-260; discussion 260-268.
16. Continuous Update Project Interim Report Summary. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer. . World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research.; 2011.

 

 

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Comments (17) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
amee - July 30, 2012 11:59 AM

Great delivery. Such a sad sad issue. There are countries with predominantly vegetarian diets and they seem to do just fine without a 'USDA'. Note that other countries don't need an organization to know what to eat or to know what is good for them.
If you choose to eat meat, then fine. But don't pretend like you need it to survive or that your body will decompose from malnutrition without it.
And certainly eating less of it is better for you. That's just common sense.
Don't forget that the exec team of USDA get to go on nice luxury vacations as long as they agree to side with the cattle ranchers.

Laura - July 30, 2012 12:18 PM

This sickens me. We should all let the Secretary of Ag. know what a load of crap this is. Utterly frightening.

Tammy K. - July 30, 2012 12:18 PM

I am tired of the USDA letting cattlemen tell them what to convince us to eat so their funding stays put. My dad was a huge meat eater, had first massive heart attack at 38, several more small ones, had a consistent blood pressure of 210/160 and was a heavy smoker. He refused to give up meat or high fat foods, alcohol or cigarettes. He died at 58. When I spoke to the coroners office, waiting god the death certificate, the clerk was looking at the certificate and said, "oh, he died of Wendy's disease." Never hearing of this, I asked what was that? She replied, "it's what we joke about around here--it's someone who eats a lot of beef and high fat food, you remember the commercial from Wendy's? Where's the beef?"

Scary, but I'm 53-and don't want a repeat of my dad at 58. Plus, my mom had a severe stroke 3 years ago. Lost the use of her left side, is permanently in a wheel chair and is on a nursing home.

I'm trying to change the "genes" here and working on living nutritarian. Thank you Dr. Fuhrman.

Tia - July 30, 2012 1:03 PM

I find the best way to identify healthy eating habits is to do the exact opposite of whatever the USDA recommends. They are a political puppet of the big ag industry and nothing more.

Makanjuola pius - July 30, 2012 1:08 PM

Your write up is always educative and informative. If i may ask, what are the best vegetables, fruits to cure hypertension? May God continue to guide you.

Rebecca Cody - July 30, 2012 3:22 PM

Same old, same old...

So, I want to know why the government is A) subsidizing meat production so costs to consumers are artificially low, and B) advertising for any industry. Of course, one feeds the other, but it makes no sense.

They sure didn't advertise for me when I was in business!

sharon shaw - July 31, 2012 12:00 AM

As Howard "Mad Cowboy" says: "It's all about the Golden Rule..They who have the gold make the rules"!!

Jean Myers - July 31, 2012 12:16 AM

Thanks for a great article - clear and persuasive. Is there a way to link to the 16 studies you referenced? Usually they are listed under the article,but I don't see them this time. Thanks so much!

MJ - July 31, 2012 12:31 AM

Well as Marie Antionette said "let them eat cake".... I say "let them eat beef"!
Enjoy your open heart surgeries, bowels being splayed open and ostomy bags and
dragging your paralyzed limbs about with your wheelchair in your obese state! Job security for
all the healthcare professionals and associated businesses ! Just don't whine about
your lot in life to the rest of us ok!

Susan Estrella - July 31, 2012 8:00 AM

Thank you for an excellent discussion. For more information, check out www.vegsource.com and see the excellent documentary "Forks Over Knives". Best of all, read the compilation of many decades of extensive research on human nutrition in "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell. He makes it very interesting and very clear: eat a natural plant-based diet. :-)

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - July 31, 2012 8:54 AM

Jean, the references were accidentally cut off; we have added them back in.

Carrie (Carrie on Vegan) - July 31, 2012 10:43 AM

This is so pathetic, but makes perfect sense when you realize the mission of the USDA is to support agriculture, not the health of Americans. Bravo, Dr. Fuhrman, for continuing to promote change at all levels!

mgm - July 31, 2012 8:35 PM

Take heart - things are changing at a grass roots level, in spite of the USDA and Big Food/Big Farm. Today I was in a large gathering of employees from many of our regional offices for a day long focus group. The company provided submarine sandwiches for lunch and without even asking, just assumed some people would be vegetarians and made sure some were just filled with veggies. That right there is a change. Then, when it turned out that quite a few more people were meatless than they anticipated, no one made any comments or gave a hard time to the people who pulled off the meat, and in some cases the cheese, of the remaining meat filled subs. No one needed to justify or explain themselves. It was just accepted. The sandwiches were quite big and there was plenty in them even without the meat and dairy. And when I ditched the bread so as not to eat the gluten (migraine avoidance) it again was just accepted. People's minds are really opening up to all the great nutrition info out there, and respecting the consequent choices people are starting to make.

mike rubino - July 31, 2012 8:51 PM

Big government, controlled by lobbyists at its worst ! Scary, very scary that they think this way .

Scotland Move - August 1, 2012 4:01 AM

This is just a bunch of bull**** ! Sounds like the words of someone in the meat industry, who's afraid of going out of business! I personally eat meat, but not that often, and definitely not each day of the week. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is vegetarian and feels great!!!

NevadaSmith - August 2, 2012 5:59 PM

So? What do you expect a perfect world? You really expect the government to look out for our health when the health of the economy is the issue that is their priority? If they did that the tobacco industry and the drug companies along with many food companies would be out of business not to mention that the beef and dairy industries might suffer financial losses.

I believe that less government involvement the better. they should not be making any recommendations one way or the other. Some of the things they have already outlawed were beneficial and healthy. If they catered to any one group's way of thinking they would be sure to get something wrong and that includes catering to the views of vegans.

Liz - August 24, 2012 11:29 AM

This is a very good article. Thank you for presenting it in a factual and research based fashion. I recently heard someone say that the public is ahead of the government in taking action on environmental issues. I think the same can be said of health and nutrition. We need to take care of ourselves and do our own research. We also need to seek out and produce a different paradigm of leadership.

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