Americans should break the 222 pound meat habit in 2018

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Will Americans really eat more meat in 2018 than ever before? The U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week that the average consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018. For the health of Americans and the environment, let’s hope that this prediction proves false.

Nobody outside of the meat industry would argue that eating 222 pounds of meat is healthful. In fact, the USDA’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that “lower intakes of meats, including processed meats; processed poultry … have often been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns.”

{mosads}But eliminating meat from your diet altogether is the safest bet, because even amounts significantly smaller than 222 pounds are dangerous. A new study in the European Journal of Cancer found that eating just 9 grams of processed meat a day — about three slices of bacon or two sausages a week — can increase the risk of breast cancer. That’s just 7 pounds of meat in a year.

Here’s some more meat-and-mortality math: 222.2 pounds is 100,788 grams. Divide that amount evenly over 365 days, and it’s 276 grams per day. That’s more than double the amount of daily meat intake it takes to increase your risk of breast, colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, stroke, diabetes, and death from heart disease, according to a study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

Health concerns are also why the meat-heavy Dukan Diet and Keto Diet tied for last place in U.S. News & World Report’s latest ranking of 40 diets. The meaty Paleo Diet and Atkins Diet also ranked near the bottom, while the plant-friendly DASH Diet and Mediterranean Diet tied for first place.

It’s good to see the meat-pushing diets rank so low. The average American already consumes roughly double the protein her or his body needs, and the main sources of protein consumed tend to be animal products. The Dietary Guidelines advise that teen boys and adult men “need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables…”

Maybe stronger measures are needed to break America’s meat habit. Is it time to enact a meat tax? A report last month said that a tax is increasingly likely for some countries trying to fight not only disease but climate change.

The authors of the report have a message Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue needs to hear as the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization in 2018: “If policymakers are to cover the true cost of livestock epidemics like avian flu and human epidemics like obesity, diabetes and cancer, while also tackling the twin challenges of climate change and antibiotic resistance, then a shift from subsidization to taxation of the meat industry looks inevitable.”

While a tax would help curb meat consumption, perhaps the USDA’s predication for 2018 is premature. All signs show that Americans are actually interested in moving away from meat. Google searches for “vegan” just reached an all-time high, and Pinterest listed plant proteins as one of the top trends to try in 2018 based on a 417 percent increase in user interest.  

This translates into big business. According to Food Navigator, sales of meat alternatives rose more than 6 percent between 2016 and 2017 to around $554 million. Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat processor, announced last month that it’s increasing its stake in plant-based Beyond Meat, because “global demand for all protein remains high and we’re passionate about meeting that demand sustainably.”

Most importantly, moving away from meat helps combat America’s diet-related epidemics, including heart disease and diabetes epidemics. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that replacing one to two servings of meat or dairy each day with plant-based proteins reduces the risk of heart disease.

People with diabetes who replace red meat with beans, peas, and other legumes—which have been found to satisfy hunger more than meat—see improvements in fasting blood glucose, insulin, triglyceride levels, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, according to a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Added bonus: Swapping beef for beans is beneficial for environment.

The clock is ticking. America: Break the meat habit in 2018, and prove the USDA’s prediction wrong — for the sake of people, animals, and the environment.

Neal Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C., is president and founder of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Barnard is a physician, clinical researcher, author, and an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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