Meatless Mondays are gaining traction as people all over the world choose to abstain from meat one day a week in the name of health and planet. So we decided to check out the story behind this campaign and whether it’s worth jumping on board.
What’s the Deal?
Across the globe, people are choosing to participate in Meatless Monday: going without meat one day a week to reduce their carbon footprint and, according to supporters, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes Meat consumption and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC-PANACEA study. Vergnaud, AC, Norat, T., Romaguera, D., et al. Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, Imperial College London. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010 Aug;92(2):398-407. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28713. Whether or not the regular consumption of lots of meat is healthy is hotly contested, but that hasn't stopped the campaign from taking off.
Launched in the U.S. in 2003, the Meatless Mondays campaign is the brainchild of health advocate Sid Lerner in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future. The idea has been expanding globally since its launch (so far to 23 countries) with the help of media attention and well-known Meatless Monday advocates including Sir Richard Branson, Bethenny Frankel, and Robin Roberts. The campaign’s website provides a plethora of information, from the history of the movement to recipes, featured bloggers, a handy-dandy Nutritional FAQ, and information on how anyone can get involved and spread the meat-free word.
Why it Matters
Lerner was motivated to start Meatless Mondays because of research about the over-consumption of meat. Eating more than the USDA’s daily recommendation for meat has been correlated to certain health risks, including an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease and an overall increased risk of mortality Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Sinha R., Cross A.J., Graubard B., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute-Nutritional Epidemiology Branch, Rockville, MD, Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009 Mar 23;169(6):562-71. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.6 Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk. Genkinger, J.,Koushik A., Published online 2007 December 11, PLoS Med. 2007 December; 4(12): e345. Red and processed meats, in particular, have been correlated with cancer risk and reduced mortality Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk. Genkinger, J.,Koushik A., Published online 2007 December 11, PLoS Med. 2007 December; 4(12): e345. In contrast, diets low in saturated fat and high in plants, fiber, and meatless proteins like beans and lentils have been linked to lower mortality risk and improved diet quality Consumption of dry beans, peas, and lentils could improve diet quality in the US population. Mitchell, DC, Lawrence, FR, Hartman, TJ, et al. Diet Assessment Center, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Pennsylvania State University. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009 May;109(5):909-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.02.029.
That being said, the verdict is still out on whether going meatless is actually better for us. Critics of the meatless camp cite research suggesting the saturated fats in meat aren't bad for us after all Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Siri-Tarino, PW, Sun, Q., Hu, FB, et al. Children’s Hospital, Oakland Research Institute, California. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725. Critics also point to the fact that meat consumption is only marginally associated with mortality risk and that many of the studies linking meat with poor health don't control for other health-related variables.
Though the health aspect of vegetarianism is still being debated, what is clear is that there may be some big ecological benefits to going meatless, even just once a week. Giant livestock farms are capable of generating as much waste as a small city (holy cow, indeed!). Mass farming of livestock is associated with deforestation, the depletion of groundwater, and air and water pollution. Industrial farms also consume massive amounts of fresh water and available land in order to raise animals for meat production. Decreasing the demand for meat could theoretically lessen these farms’ production and environmental impact.
Is it Legit?
Probably. As the research in the previous section shows, reducing consumption of red and processed meats may promote overall health — but it's tough to say for sure, and there's evidence other dietary factors (like sugar consumption) are the real culprits. Though the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition recommends replacing foods that are high in saturated fat (like red meat) with other options like those found in leaner cuts of meat or in non-meat sources (like avocados, olive oil, and nuts), some research suggests that saturated fat might not be the demon it's been portrayed to be Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Siri-Tarino, PW, Sun, Q., Hu, FB, et al. Children’s Hospital, Oakland Research Institute, California. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725. Epub 2010 Jan 13. But it's pretty safe to say that going meatless for one day a week isn't going to cause any serious harm. And cutting back on meat could also help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, a definite thumbs-up for the environment.
Interested in eating less meat but worried about protein? Don’t fret. Most Americans get enough protein in their diets already, and there are plenty of protein-packed meat alternatives to fill one day a week. (Of course, if you’re worried about switching to a new diet plan, it’s always a good idea to consult a medical professional.). Bonus: Building a meal around vegetables, grains, and beans generally costs less than a meal that includes meat. For those uncomfortable with going entirely meatless, trying it out for one day a week could be a beneficial (and budget-friendly) health experiment.
Do you participate in Meatless Mondays? Why or why not? Share in comments below!