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.
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:
“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.
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.