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Eating meat is essential for our health and well-being, leading scientists say

Eating meat is essential for our health and well-being, leading scientists say

With the continued push to move people towards ever more plant-based diets it’s important to recognise that meat is essential for our health and well-being.  A special issue of Animal Frontiers published last month did just that. 

The societal debate around the value of meat is neither new nor has it been dispassionate. So, Animal Frontiers set out to answer the question: Should eating meat in sufficient portions be a common and important part of the standard human diet?  To do so, they invited a broad group of leading international scientists to give their interpretations of the current scientific evidence.

Thirty-six co-authors, and many more unnamed researchers who provided the groundwork for evidence and insights, contributed to the special issue.  It includes several reports and studies supporting the nutritional value of animal foods for humans. Although the issue covers other related topics, below is a brief description of the articles which discuss the nutritional aspects of meat. For ease of reference, we have used as our subtitles the article titles as shown in Animal Frontiers.  You can view a list of all the articles HERE and read an introduction, which has a synopsis of each article, HERE.

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The Role of Meat in The Human Diet: Evolutionary Aspects and Nutritional Value

The first article seeks to address the questions:

  • Is meat indeed to be considered as a meaningful part of the species-adapted diet of humans?
  • Are there nutrients that can become compromised when abstaining from meat?
  • How does meat contribute to the supply of these nutrients globally?
  • Which risks may be created by a large reduction in meat consumption?

The article demonstrates that Homo sapiens evolved to be persistent and frequent meat eaters and that regular meat consumption appears to bestow multiple and important nutritional benefits.  The article abstract states:

Aspects of human anatomy, digestion, and metabolism diverged from other primates, indicating evolutionary reliance on, and compatibility with, substantial meat intake. Implications of a disconnect from evolutionary dietary patterns may contribute to today’s burden of disease, increasing the risk for both nutrient deficiencies and chronic diseases.

Meat supplies high-quality protein and various nutrients, some of which are not always easily obtained with meat-free diets and are often already suboptimal or deficient in global populations. Removal of meat comes with implications for a broad spectrum of nutrients that need to be accounted for, whereas compensatory dietary strategies must factor in physiological and practical constraints.

Although meat makes up a small part (<10%) of global food mass and energy, it delivers most of the global vitamin B12 intake and plays a substantial role in the supply of other B vitamins, retinol, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, several minerals in bioavailable forms (e.g., iron and zinc), and a variety of bioactive compounds with health-improving potential (e.g., taurine, creatine, and carnosine).

As a food matrix, meat is more than the sum of its individual nutrients. Moreover, within the diet matrix, it can serve as a keystone food in food-based dietary interventions to improve nutritional status, especially in regions that rely heavily on cereal staples.

Efforts to lower global meat intake for environmental or other reasons beyond a critical threshold may hinder progress towards reducing undernutrition and the effects this has on both physical and cognitive outcomes, and thereby stifle economic development. This is particularly a concern for populations with increased needs and in regions where current meat intake levels are low, which is not only pertinent for the Global South but also of relevance in high-income countries.

The role of meat in the human diet: evolutionary aspects and nutritional value, Animal Frontiers, Volume 13, Issue 2, April 2023, Pages 11–18

Non-Communicable Disease Risk Associated with Red and Processed Meat Consumption – Magnitude, Certainty, And Contextuality of Risk

In the second article, experts examined whether there are health risks in eating meat – particularly red and processed meats and their impact on non-communicable diseases – and at what dosages such risks may be incurred.  The article abstract states:

Mean global intakes per person of red and processed meats are 51 and 17 g/day respectively. Consumption is lowest in South Asia (7 and 3 g/d), and highest in Central Europe/Asia (114 and 54 g/d).

While some researchers claim that red meat consumption is intrinsically harmful, the evidence does not support this being the case where intakes are below 75 and 20 g/d, respectively.

Even beyond these intake levels, only small increases in relative risks are reported (<25%), there is little to no effect on absolute risk, and the certainty of evidence remains low to very low based on the best available summary evidence.

Importantly the relationship is not necessarily causal – when meat consumption is part of healthy dietary patterns, harmful associations tend to disappear, suggesting that risk is more likely to be contingent on the dietary context rather than meat itself.

Non-communicable disease risk associated with red and processed meat consumption—magnitude, certainty, and contextuality of risk? Animal Frontiers, Volume 13, Issue 2, April 2023, Pages 19–27

Livestock and Socioeconomics

One of the topics this article explores is all the long-term health and productivity harms that undernourishment causes. It is not only an avoidable human tragedy but also a huge loss in economic opportunity. Expanding animal production output is the most readily available way to nourish the world sufficiently in the future. To achieve this, today’s livestock production processes must become more efficient, leading to more affordable consumer prices of meat, milk, and eggs, which would be a key contribution to making sufficiently nutritious food universally available.

The Dublin Declaration

The Dublin Declaration has garnered the support of over 1,000 scientists globally.  The Declaration’s authors invite all scientists from around the world to sign and, the authors write, “thus give our science a voice that too often is silenced.”

The Declaration includes the statement:

Livestock-derived foods provide a variety of essential nutrients and other health-promoting compounds, many of which are lacking in diets globally, even among those populations with higher incomes. Well-resourced individuals may be able to achieve adequate diets while heavily restricting meat, dairy and eggs. However, this approach should not be recommended for general populations, particularly not those with elevated needs, such as young children and adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, women of reproductive age, older adults, and the chronically ill.

The Dublin Declaration

For the scientific evidence that supports their stance, the Dublin Declaration refers interested parties to the presentation recordings from the International Summit on the Societal Role of Meat that took place in Dublin, Ireland on 19-20 October 2022.

Featured image:  20 types of meat and the benefits of each one

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