The Pros and Cons of Eating Meat

My last article, on the pros and cons of eating meat, got quite a lot of comments. Clearly, it’s an issue the members of our community have given a lot of thought, and one we often struggle to reconcile within ourselves. On the pros side, many people feel healthiest when meat is part of their diet. Some have numerous sensitivities to plant foods, eggs, and dairy products, and meat is one of the few things that sits well in their body. Indeed, one could argue that the human race would have ended millennia ago if we hadn’t eaten meat.

On the cons side, large scale meat production has many destructive impacts on the environment. Farm animals are often raised in a way that lacks a reverence for life, and sometimes is downright cruel. And numerous studies claim that a high meat diet increases one’s risk of certain cancers and ischemic heart disease. (It should be noted, however, that some large studies have found no significant difference in all-cause mortality rates between vegetarians/vegans and meat-eaters.)

So, where do we go from here? First, I feel I should tell you my qualifications to lead such a discussion. In addition to being a nutritionally-oriented medical provider, I have a degree in plant and soil sciences from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I focused on sustainable and organic agriculture. I’ve been studying ecology for over 25 years, and although I still wouldn’t call myself an expert, I know more about this stuff, and have more clinical experience with the human health elements of it, than the average zealous blogger. 

I specifically try not to be a zealot because zealotry makes us intolerant to opposing viewpoints and therefore keeps us from seeing the whole truth. You can trust that I have looked at this from many angles and I am passionate about saving the planet and finding long-term solutions that are in the best interests of the greatest number of people.

Now, let’s look closer at these pros and cons.

Some people feel better and have better objective measures of health when meat is part of their diet. In my opinion, there’s really no arguing with this. Bodies are different and some bodies thrive on meat. Does this mean everyone thrives on meat? No.

Does this mean we need meat to thrive? No, but for some, it may take work (and sacrifice) to thrive as a vegetarian or vegan.

Does this mean those who do well with meat should have lots of it? Probably not. One of the things the longest lived cultures of the world have in common is that they all consume little meat.

Meat production has many destructive impacts on the environment and public health. If we care about the planet and the future of our species, this point needs our attention. With just a few exceptions, production of animal-based foods is much more resource-intensive than plant-based foods. Animal food production (especially red meat) uses much more land than plant crop production does. It also uses much more water, and simultaneously contributes to water pollution. Meat production (again, especially red) has a massive carbon footprint – both through greenhouse gases and deforestation (we need trees to sequester carbon like giant sponges).

Farm animals contribute in a big way to antibiotic resistance. 70 to 80 percent of the world’s antibiotics are administered to animals, and this is often done in a “preventive” way that’s totally unnecessary. (It’s worth noting that part of the reason this percentage is so high is because farm animals greatly outnumber humans, and doses for large animals are much larger than those for people.)

In short, the world can’t all consume animal products in the quantities that Americans and Europeans do. There isn’t enough Earth to support it. We can’t expect the rest of the world to bear this burden. We must eat less meat and also change the way we produce animal products to make them more sustainable.

Aren’t there sustainable ways to raise animals? Yes, animal husbandry can even restore poor land. But such practices represent a tiny minority of total agriculture and simply couldn’t be scaled to meet current demand.

Can plant farming be destructive too? Absolutely, though not as destructive in as many ways as meat production. We need to make all agriculture more sustainable.

Does the world need to go vegan? No, I have seen models that allow for some meat, egg, and dairy consumption – especially if they’re produced intelligently – but we do need to shift to a primarily plant-based diet if we endeavor to feed everyone and maintain a healthy planet.

Eating meat usually entails the mistreatment of animals. Chances are, if you eat meat at restaurants and you buy meat at the store, you are supporting agricultural practices that are unkind to animals. Animal welfare regulations have gotten a little better in the past few decades, but in the “factory farms” where about 95% of our food supply originates – humanity is generally not a core value. Are there exceptions? Definitely. Look for products from humanely-raised animals and get to know local farms. Because raising animals with compassion requires more space, expect the price to be higher – but isn’t it worth compensating farmers for giving animals a more natural and dignified existence?

If you care about these issues – health, animal welfare, the environment, hunger, etc. – I encourage you to read more and challenge your assumptions. As I said last time, we tolerate the negative impacts of meat consumption through a collective practice of willful ignorance. The food industry depends on it. As I see it, the global solution depends on a large-scale willingness to be uncomfortable – to recognize the cost of our choices, to seek out more conscientious sources even if they’re less convenient or more expensive, to reduce our consumption of factory-grade animal products, and so on.

What’s your story? What are your solutions? What changes are you willing to make? Share below!

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

3 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Eating Meat

  1. Thank you for this article – altho I thought there could have been a more substantive discussion of the pros/cons of being carnivore vs. herbivore. Until August 2017, I had been a carnivore and I had a philosophical “aha” moment for the reasons you mentioned above to change my diet. I chose, as a compromise, to be a pescatarian. There are pros and cons to that as well for some of the same reasons mentioned above. I did lose about 25 pounds (which didn’t go un-noticed from my friends and family and motivated some of them to follow suit), feel much better and my cholesterol numbers have significantly improved – to the point I’m no longer on Rx. But, my main motivation for remaining a pescatarian is for the philosophical reasons. I am a firm believer we eat too much meat and the dis-eases from which most Americans suffer can be linked to the amount of meat consumed.

  2. Many years ago, while in cooking school, I made a deal with myself. My school was all about knowing where your food comes from (that ensures quality among other things). One of our tours was a slaughter house.

    The deal I made was – if I couldn’t stand what I saw – I had no business buying or eating meat. As it happens, the part that disturbed me, wasn’t the killing (that was extremely fast an humane). It was the wholesale killing without a flinch from anyone involved and no thanks to the animal for providing sustenance for others.

    I found myself going through the “plant” constantly whispering “Thank you, thank you, thank you…I won’t take this for granted”.

    So, I continue to eat meat. However…I changed my buying habits. I only buy from ranches and farms that give the animal a good life, do not use antibiotics or hormones and take the animals lives in humane ways. I gave up on buying from companies who practice factory farming.

    It’s more expensive, certainly. But that also ensures I buy less meat; healthier meat and locally sourced meat. We’re one of the few countries with a friendly growing climate, that choose to make meat a main dish and other foods side dishes. A substantial part of the world practices just the opposite.

    Important to note that a completely plant based diet, requires land too (though not as much). In the case of soybean and palm oil farming, the global impact to habitat loss (certainly in the Amazon) is astronomical…as is palm oil farming.

    I think it behooves us to see where *all* our food is coming from and make better choices across the board.

  3. I am still on this journey of discovery of what works for me. I think at some point we’ll understand more about the interplay between genetics and diet. Who our ancestors were and what their diet probably played a role in what is good for us, but even they were not able to eat an ideal diet for their body. I don’t think a vegetarian or vegan diet would be the best for me, given my experience and ancestry but some read meat, some other types of animal and vegetable protein probably would be ideal. I am 3/4 Latinx with a fairly good concentration of Native American who relied on the three sisters: corn, beans and a starch to provide the complete protein that was for them, the staff of life. My Irish ancestors relied on fish and seaweed. (BTW: Potatoes were a much later addition by the English who thought they were helping to feed them to disastrous results).

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