For better or worse (mostly the latter), we live in a sound bite world.
Even complex issues tend to be reduced to shorthand and slogans, the catchphrases that activists — who criticize the lack of intellectual engagement whenever anyone disagrees with their agenda — love to repeat ad nauseum.
The goal is to cement in the public consciousness a meme that justifies whatever prescription touted as a solution to the challenges facing countries around the world.
One of the primary attack lines, of course, is that meat is the ultimate four-letter word. The production of meat is what ruining the environment, and the consumption of meat is what’s destroying people’s health.
It’s neat, it’s short, it’s easy to grasp.
And it’s completely inaccurate.
First of all, at the same time that many in the Nutritional-Medical Complex continue to insist that eating foods containing fat is horrific, and that poultry is a far better dietary choice than beef or pork, most studies attacking modern diets conflate red and white meat, to make it seem that western countries are overindulging in animal foods.
But it has to be one or the other: Either chicken and turkey are far better foods, and we should be eating more of them, or they’re equally guilty of (alleged) dietary crimes as beef and pork, and we need to avoid all such foods.
More tellingly, though, the idea that eating less meat equals better health is belied by a vast database that activists don’t like to discuss.
The bottom of the list
The data are found in the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization ranking of the countries of the world according to how much meat they consume per capita. If, as vegan activists insist, the less meat we eat, the better off we are, then according to that logic, the healthiest countries in the world should be the ones where meat consumption is the lowest.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Consider FAO’s 2012 ranking of the leading vegetarian countries in the world, and then ask yourself how eager you are to move there in search of better health.
Here’s the list:
Bangladesh, India, Burundi, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Mozambique, Gambia and Malawi.
Granted, many of those countries have been hit by droughts and crop failures, widespread hunger and famine, all exacerbated in many cases by civil war and political instability.
But on every health metric, as measure by a comprehensive 2014 World Bank analysis, the vegetarian countries are among the worst in the world. On the key data that best represent a country’s health status — maternal death rate, infant mortality and average life expectancy — the countries that eat the least meat are at or near the bottom of the rankings.
And the countries where meat consumption is highest — the United States, Australia and several countries in Western Europe — tend to be at the top of the list of healthiest nations.
Of course, anti-meat activists would argue, it’s not just about diet. An entire cluster of other factors — access to healthcare facilities, educational opportunities, economic development — exert tremendous impact on lifespans and health outcomes.
Yes, they do — and that’s why all those dietary history studies purporting to show that eating red meat contributes to negative health outcomes also cannot be interpreted on the basis of a single lifestyle variable among dozens of others.
Obviously, looking at per-capita meat consumption in isolation doesn’t tell us much of anything, other than the fact that economic development and rising incomes are associated with an increased appetite for animal foods.
Although they’re different demographically, the countries positioned as “leading vegetarian countries,” when they should be labeled as poverty-stricken problem areas, do have one thing in common.
The people living there don’t eat meat not because they recognize that it would contribute to better health, but for another, more overriding reason.
They can’t afford it.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator