March 24th, 2009
01:34 PM ET

Holy cow: the wide impact of eating red meat

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Last weekend, as a special treat for my family, I grilled up some lovely filet mignon steaks for dinner. To my surprise, our 16-month-old LOVED the beef, which we cut up into thin juicy slices for him. He literally gobbled it up. Beaming, my husband made some comment about the baby being a true Texan like his daddy.

Flash-forward to this morning’s medical news headline: Red meat will make you die sooner.

National Cancer Institute researchers studied 500,000 people and found those who reported eating the highest amounts of red meat (about a steak a day) had a 30 percent greater risk of dying compared to those who ate the lowest amounts of red meat (which was on average about a kid’s hamburger a day). The study considered ‘red meat’ to mean all forms of beef and pork products, including processed forms like sausages and yes, bacon.

The point of the study was not necessarily to eliminate all red meat from your diet, but to enjoy it in moderation. No prob.

But aside from the health argument, I’ve been more troubled about what Barry Popkin, a nutrition epidemiologist, discussed in his editorial published alongside the study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. He focused on the environmental impact of how much meat we eat, an argument that’s starting to make me less comfortable about chomping down on a cheeseburger for lunch today.

Primarily, we’re talking about the toll on our planet resulting from mass raising livestock in the giant, assembly-line meat factories where animals are fed then processed before they show up in the grocery store, all neatly packaged and ready for the grill. And it’s not just an issue here in the U.S., where total gross consumption of meat and dairy foods is double or even triple of what people in lower-income countries eat. Elsewhere in the world, industrial livestock production is growing more than twice as quickly as the traditional methods, where cows just graze on grass out in the fields.

These animals consume huge amounts of energy and water. We use two to five times more water to grow grain for these animals than just to raise the crops that we eat ourselves. One source estimates almost a quarter of the world’s water goes to livestock use. Amidst global food shortages – where 800 million people on our planet go hungry every day - the majority of corn and soy grown on this earth go to feed these animals.

On top of that, there’s the issue of water pollution. In the U.S., raising livestock accounts for more than half of the erosion of our soil, half the antibiotics consumed, a third of pesticides used, and a third of the total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus into surface water, says the editorial.

Plus, these animals generate massive volumes of greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. The U.N. estimates that livestock are responsible for almost a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions – much more than what the cars and trucks on America’s roads account for.

Despite these facts, I know I’m still going to be looking forward to our first big “grillfest” of the season, just as soon as this weather gets a bit warmer. However, on a daily basis, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be going easier on the red meat, for reasons that go beyond my own family’s health.

Just wondering – are you just as bothered as I am about the environmental consequences of our meat eating habits? We’d like to hear your thoughts.

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