Introduction

You don’t need to eat meat and it is not good for you. A challenging statement to some, but one backed up by a huge body of scientific evidence. How many studies suggest we need five sausages a day? None! Eating meat increases the risk of all the big killers: heart disease and stroke, diabetes, bowel cancer and other cancers. Meat is one of the main causes of obesity, along with dairy foods. It offers no protection for bone health and the animal protein in meat and dairy is linked to weaker bones. Meat is the main cause of food poisoning. Factory-farming is to blame for the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Then there’s BSE, bird flu and the horsemeat scandal. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to eat meat after becoming aware of the facts.    

This report investigates the current research looking at all these issues and more. If you are in any doubt then read on, the facts are all here – fully-referenced to the peer-reviewed science from reputable journals.

Heart disease is one of the UK’s biggest killers and a leading cause of death worldwide. Type 2 diabetes is rapidly becoming a global epidemic and people who eat meat have a higher risk of developing it. In 2035, the NHS could be spending almost a fifth of its entire budget on treating diabetes. One in every two people born after 1960 will develop cancer at some point in their lives. We are not a healthy nation and diet is largely responsible, and within that, meat plays a central role. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) says that people should “Eat mostly foods of plant origin, limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat.” That means no sausages or bacon – ever. Viva!Health goes one step further and says eat no meat ever. It offers no benefit and it harms health.   

The UK Department of Health’s advice is based on the links between meat and cancer. The links between meat and heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and other health problems are largely ignored. They say you should limit your intake of red and/or processed meat to no more than 70g a day (or 500g a week). Over a week, if you ate six meals containing meat (so less than one per day) including one full English breakfast, three slices of ham, a quarter pounder burger, spaghetti bolognaise, a doner kebab and a Sunday roast, you would have exceeded the government’s upper limit by around 100g. The guideline only applies to red and processed meats but most meat-eaters would also consume some white meat (chicken or turkey) pushing up their intake of saturated fat and other harmful substances even further.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Public Health estimated what would happen if meat intake fell and the number of vegetarians doubled. They not only predicted a drop in incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, bowel cancer and other cancers, but also a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The diet that is good for us is also good for the environment. However, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the harmful effects of meat on health and the environment, certainly in terms of changing government policy. This immutable position may finally be getting the push it needs to change because of the links between meat and cancer becoming even more firmly established.    

In late 2015, 22 scientists from ten countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to evaluate the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC is the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Their assessments were published on October 26th, 2015, just a few days ahead of World Vegan Day celebrated on November 1st every year.

Their findings made major headlines around the world when it was announced that the WHO declared that eating just 50g of processed meat (less than two slices of bacon) a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent. They also found an increase of 100g of red meat a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by 17 per cent. They also found links between red meat and pancreatic and prostate cancer, and processed meat and stomach cancer.

The meat industry dismissed the report’s findings. Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said that he believed the industry would continue to thrive (Fortune, 2015). That is interesting as statistics from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) show that UK meat consumption has fallen by 13 per cent since 2007 (Defra, 2015). Within a week of the WHO report being released Bagley said: “It will not be damaging long-term for the UK meat industry unless they come up with new evidence to show the risk has significantly increased. There is nothing new in this report and nothing to suggest that the risk had changed” (Fortune, 2015).   

However, UK shoppers felt differently. Martin Wood, head of strategic insight-retail at market research company IRI Retail Advantage said: “While there have been links between certain types of meat and some forms of cancer before, this announcement from a highly respected global body was picked up widely by the media and has had an immediate impact on some people’s shopping choices” (IRI, 2015). IRI said that sales of prepacked sausages were down by 15.7 per cent in the last week of October 2015 compared to the same week in the previous year. In the two weeks following the report, sales of bacon and sausages plummeted 10 per cent (by £3 million) (Gani, 2015). Wood said: “What we may see here is some people making changes to meat buying, moving away from processed meat to non-processed alternatives…” (IRI, 2015).

While this may mean some people buying red or white meat or fish instead of processed meats, it also inevitably meant some people reducing or ditching meat altogether. The meat-free market is booming and rising sales suggest that the tide is turning. People are either reducing or dropping meat completely for healthier options including mock meats (veggie sausages and burgers) as well as dishes made with wholegrains, pulses (peas, beans and lentils) and nuts and seeds.

The research shows that the rising number of vegetarians and vegans not only suffer less illnesses but live longer, healthier lives. Forty per cent of adults in the UK (most men over 60 and women over 65) will soon be advised to take statins to lower their risk of heart disease – which can be prevented and reversed by going vegan. Going into old age disease-free, fit and healthy is all any of us could hope for. If one simple lifestyle change can help you achieve that, isn’t it worth making the change today?