It’s Monday; are you meatless?


The Meatless Monday campaign, started by the Blooomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, aims to create a

… grassroots movement that spans all borders and demographic groups. By cutting out meat once a week, we can improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint and lead the world in the race to reduce climate change.

What could be wrong with this campaign?  The impact of livestock agriculture on energy, land and water use is a very important concern.  Production of animal-based foods is incredibly energy and water-intensive.  And there simply isn’t enough arable land to feed everyone on the planet those big portions of animal-based foods typical of Western diets.

But the supposedly adverse impact of meat eating on health is less obvious.  And the health and environmental effects of substituting non-meat animal products, like eggs and cheese, on “meatless” Mondays is even less clear.  All animal products are energy and water intensive, not just meat.  And substituting a cheesy dish for grilled chicken breast or a lean flank steak isn’t likely to do your diet any favors.  Meatless can still be higher calorie and higher fat than meat, depending on what you choose.

The website makes claims for all kinds of disease prevention effects, since consumption of red meat and animal foods is associated with more diabetes cancer, obesity and heart disease.  Unfortunately, association is not causation.  The typical meat-based diet is also high in processed foods, low in fiber and low in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  So is it just the meat?  Or is it the lack of all that other stuff, which by the way is also associated with disease risks.  In fact, it’s perfectly possible to include meat in a diet full of plant foods, low on processed junk, and have a perfectly healthy diet and avoid all those health problems.  It’s called the Mediterranean Diet.

So while going meatless on Monday, or any other day, is a nice idea, the point for both the environment and your health would be to focus more on plant-based foods than just swapping cheese for meat.  The other problem with this campaign is that it’s not convenient, unless you just serve something like bean burritos or vegetable soup and salad.  The dinner recipes on the Meatless Mondays site are mostly complicated and time-consuming.  Not exactly the kind of thing you want to deal with after a long day at work, commuting and dealing with the logistics of kids and family.  Speaking of kids: many of these recipes are not going to appeal to them.  Mac and cheese?

This campaign reminds me a bit of the Fish on Friday tradition of the Catholic religion.  That tradition has decidedly non-health/environmental origins.  Given the extreme inputs of energy required for deep sea fishing, not to mention the fact that ocean fish stocks are being rapidly depleted by overfishing, don’t substitute fish on Meatless Mondays.  To make the most impact on the environment and your health, I’d suggest you think of it as Plant Food Monday.

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