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Vegetarianism 101: Your Health

Someone cover the ears of the beef lobby. (And the pork lobby.) I gots something to tell you.

Ready? Okay.

Meat isn’t good for you. In fact, substantial evidence has been mounted showing that, as a cornerstone of your diet, it’s actually harmful for you.

When I say meat is harmful for you, I’m talking about “modern meat,” the kind fed whatever is cheapest and gets the meat to market fastest, the kind produced in produced in factory-like operations, the kind kept in such close, crowded confines that cutting beaks and tails is routine. I’m not fixated on saturated fats and cholesterol when I say this. Honestly, I think that meat raised under certain conditions can be a healthful food, especially for certain individuals. However, that is not the way the meat industry is run in this country.

Yesterday, I highlighted some of the ways in which the meat industry damages the environment and, by association, all of us who live in it. However, industrial meat is bad for your health in ways beyond the waste lagoons, greenhouse gas emissions, and antibiotic residues in waste. Let’s look at the facts.

  • Increasingly since the 1970s, natural and synthetic hormones are given to cattle and sheep to boost their growth–get ‘em bigger faster and on less food is the general idea. It’s about boosting profit margins, not about ending world hunger or about improving public health. According to Fran McCullough’s research in The Good Fat Cookbook, 60-90% of American cattle are given growth hormones. Hormones tend to concentrate in the kidneys, liver, and fat of the animal, but they are contained in muscle tissue and milk of animals as well, and consumers of those products invite those hormones into their bodies. The European Union has banned use of growth hormones in its herds and imports of hormone-treated U.S. meats due to findings that some of these hormones are linked to an increase in the incidence of some cancers as well as abnormalities in childhood development and the early onset of puberty. More information on the hormone issue can be found at the links in this section, and Sustainable Table also provides the dirty details of hormone supplementation. Note: hormone supplementation is banned in poultry and hogs in the U.S., which is why this information focuses primarily on cows.
  • High concentrations of these hormones leaking into water supplies from animal waste are believed to have caused sexual abnormalities in fish, causing male fish to develop female sexual organs and vice versa.
  • Growth hormones given to livestock increase the risk of udder infections, which, in turn, increases the risk for either pus or antibiotics ending up in your dairy products. In addition, the heavy use of antibiotics encourages drug-resistant strains of bacteria to develop and flourish. In short, these practices help to breed superbugs.
  • It is routine to provide animals with feed containing waste meat, bone, and blood meal from other slaughtered animals. Unfortunately, many of these animals evolved to be grazers and a semi-carnivorous lifestyle contributes to dangerous prion diseases such as scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease, and their human equivalent, CJD. Learn more about how feed contributes to prion diseases from the Union of Concerned Scientists .
  • Meanwhile, not all the vegetarian feed is helping animal health, either. For example, corn and grass are pretty different beasts. Cows are ruminants, meaning that they evolved to dine on the tasty green blades, not on the bright yellow kernels. Corn in cattle feed makes their stomachs overly acidic, allows E. coli to flourish, causes health problems in cattle over the long term, and greatly increases the need for drugs. For an excellent explanation, I strongly encourage journalist Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
  • Speaking of vegetarian feed that doesn’t help overall health, check out what the increasing cost of corn is doing to some cattle operations. Another side effect of corn-based ethanol can be seen in this video from the Wall Street Journal. What will be the consequences for you, the consumer, when your burger is raised on a diet of processed junk food?
  • Even modern, fast-paced slaughtering techniques contribute to the unhealthiness of meat. The speed at which animals are slaughtered in industrial meat packing plants and the margin of error (misplaced cuts, manure-crusted hides touching the meat, and other accidents) results in, as Eric Schloesser, author of the book Fast Food Nation, crudely explains, “shit in the meat.” To prevent E. coli outbreaks from contaminated meat (remember how the corn diets contributed to the strength of the E. coli?), the industry makes a bad situation worse by suggesting that the solution is to irradiate meat before it arrives in grocery stores. Not higher standards, not moving away from this disassembly-line approach back to the model of a highly-skilled and well-trained butcher, not a more reasonable pace of slaughter–default irradiation of your food. Well, that, and they tell you how important it is to cook it to a certain temperature for a specified length of time. In case you weren’t aware, that’s to kill the fecal bacteria. Neither of these solutions focuses on how to keep the fecal matter from getting in the meat in the first place.
  • Want to turn away from farming and to the oceans to find seafood sources of protein? Unfortunately, dangerous levels of mercury being found in both freshwater and ocean fish and posing more of a risk than previously thought.
  • Heavy consumption of animal protein is linked to a number of inflammation-related diseases such as heart disease, cancers, and Alzheimer’s.

The bottom line is this: as food consumers, we are uneducated about many of our food choices. My goal is not to convert all readers of this blog to vegetarianism; my goal is to help you be more informed about the choices you make when you throw something into your cart and to ideally make better choices. Maybe that does mean you become a vegetarian. It might also mean you become a flexitarian, and it may mean you make sure to get the meat you do consume from small producers who raise their animals slowly and healthfully on the diets best suited to them. I think any of those changes is a move in the right direction for the health of animals, the planet, and ourselves.

5 comments

5 Comments so far

  1. Mom October 8th, 2008 2:11 pm

    Ok. I’m going grocery shopping on Friday. Quick. Tell me more! I think I may not go now. Yuck, pus in my milk!

  2. [...] Simple Spoonful Demystifying Healthy Eating One Delicious Dish at a Time « Vegetarianism 101: Your Health [...]

  3. [...] Benefits: We’ve covered why factory-farmed meat is not so great for you. We haven’t really explored why vegetables and fruits are so good for you, though. The [...]

  4. Laurel October 13th, 2008 5:13 pm

    Hey all–the video link isn’t broken, but the player is down at the WSJ site. Check back later to see if it’s fixed. It’s really an excellent short.

  5. Laurel October 13th, 2008 5:15 pm

    In the meantime, I added a link to an article from the WSJ on the phenomenon. Turns out ramen noodles are also on the menu. Yum!

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