Should you eat animals? The conventional wisdom — at least among those who care about such things — is that the production and consumption of beef is a scourge to both our and the planet’s health. The elements of the established narrative are familiar — obesity, soil depletion, methane pollution, overgrazing, water consumption, and so on. It’s an all around lose-lose. But if anyone is qualified to challenge this doctrine, it’s environmental lawyer, longtime vegetarian, and cattle rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman.
In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, her manifesto for responsibly raised, healthy livestock, Niman explodes popular conceptions about the consequences of eating beef and the impact raising cattle has on the environment. Her perspective is that of a reformer, an advocate for safer, healthier practices, who does not deny the failures and shortcomings of the cattle ranching industry, but challenges it to meet its critics head on and enact urgent, practical, and necessary change.
In the following passage, Niman indicates her approach: to take on orthodoxy with a fresh perspective backed by hard data.
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For the past 50 years we’ve heard repeatedly that diet is the linchpin to modern Western health problems. Author Michael Pollan has aptly described the situation this way: “Scientists operating with the best of intentions, using the best tools at their disposal, have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health.”
Over and again we’ve been told a single, simple message: What’s wrong with our diet boils down to the butter on our toast, the cream in our coffee, the steak we’re having for dinner. Nearly universally, public health agencies, dietitians, and doctors have advised us to cut back on red meat and fats, especially animal fats.
The origins of this advice can be traced back to a 1953 study often called the Seven Countries Study, conducted by Ancel Keys, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist. Keys believed that saturated fat was the primary cause of heart disease. The idea made him famous (Keys graced Time magazine’s cover in 1962) and changed the eating habits of generations to follow. Even without ever having heard of Keys in my youth, I’d heard his idea so often that I considered it incontrovertible truth in college, when I decided to adopt a vegetarian diet.
Millions of others also took the message to heart. For the second half of the 20th century, especially after 1970, Americans followed the advice they were hearing everywhere and cut back on red meat and animal fats. We cooked and baked with vegetable oils. (I clearly remember my parents switching from sticks of butter to tubs of corn oil margarine.) Americans also dutifully ate more fruits, more vegetables, and more whole grains. Most people I talk to today still consider it gospel that healthy eating means avoiding fats and red meats.
Yet over those decades, America’s dietary shift did not improve its collective health. In fact, it got considerably worse. Obesity and hypertension soared, and heart disease and stroke rates persisted. The advice we heard for decades—that reducing fats and red meats in our diets would improve our health—was proving wrong.
Partly because this colossal failure is now so readily apparent, medical and public health researchers and practitioners have been re-examining the standard dietary advice. And a sea change in thinking is under way. A few brave doctors and scientists have begun publicly acknowledging that Americans have been getting bad dietary advice for the past half century.
It’s important to dive into some specific data about how our eating patterns have actually changed over the past century, especially in recent decades.
Consumption levels of just about every food you can imagine can be determined by looking at relatively undisputed government data. For over a century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tracked the amounts of everything we eat and drink.
The first point to note is that Americans are simply eating a lot more these days. Between 1970 and 2003, USDA research estimates that the average daily caloric intake increased by a staggering 523 calories per person. Theories abound as to the cause of this increase. Regardless of the reason, this fact alone certainly explains part of the problem.
Also troubling is the precise source of those additional 523 calories. Fast food now accounts for a third (34 percent) of the calories Americans consume. And then there’s snacking, which accounts for more than half of the recent calorie increase. The amount we take in at dinner has actually declined. In other words, more Doritos, fewer rutabagas. Or perhaps, more accurately, more doughnuts, less steak.
Which leads to an important first question: Are we really eating more red meat and animal fat than ever?
In a word: no. In fact, the reverse is true. We are eating less of both.
Throughout the course of the 20th century, meat consumption fluctuated. Due to wartime rationing, there was a dip in the 1940s. Around 1970 (most likely due to uncharacteristically low prices at the meat counter resulting from overproduction), there was an upward bump of beef eating. But over the course of the century, and especially for the past three decades, the general trend for both red meat and animal fats was downward. Both are notably lower today than they were a century ago.
Specifics are helpful here. (All of the figures for farming and food production and consumption, except where otherwise indicated, are from electronic versions of original U.S. Department of Agriculture records, which I have personally examined.) While Americans ate 71 pounds of beef per person per year in 1905, they ate 60 in 2010. In those same years, veal consumption went from 7 pounds per person to just 0.4 pound. Lamb consumption went down from 6 pounds to just 1. And pork consumption went from 62 pounds to 48. In a similar pattern, egg consumption went from 284 per person to 243. All significantly down. Stated another way, compared with a century ago, we are now eating 11 pounds less beef per year, 6.5 pounds less veal, 5 pounds less lamb, 14 pounds less pork, and 41 fewer eggs. These are hardly the statistics of a nation that has increased its animal fat and red meat consumption.
Now let’s look more closely at recent decades. In that time period, red meat consumption went strongly down, especially beef. From 1970 to 2005, beef consumption decreased by 22 percent; pork went down by 3 percent. Overall, red meat consumption decreased by 17 percent.
For foods rich in saturated fats, the trend is even clearer. From 1970 to 2005, butter consumption declined by 15 percent; lard went down by 47 percent; and whole milk consumption plummeted by 73 percent. The only major exception to this pattern was cheese (from pizza and other fast-food consumption), which increased.
The rise in cheese eating, however, was not enough to counteract an overall consistent shift toward less consumption of other animal fats. Mary Enig, a PhD food scientist specializing in fats who authored Know Your Fats, has calculated that over the course of the 20th century Americans’ overall consumption of saturated fats went down by 21 percent.
At this point, we may well wonder how, in the face of these consumption facts, anyone could blame America’s health crisis on animal fats and red meat. Indeed, if we believe in the Keys hypothesis, this data is deeply confounding.
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Adapted from Nicolette Hahn Niman’s Defending Beef (October 2014) and printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.
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