How much meat and dairy is good for us?

Meat and dairy products (MDPs) have long been regarded as good for health (Fiddes, 1991) but this assumption is increasingly being called into question (Raynor and Scarborough, 2010: 190). For example, the recent World Health Organization (WHO) publication once again declared that cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) remain the biggest cause of deaths worldwide, and advise to reduce four behavioral risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy – rich in salt, fat and calories – diet, and harmful use of alcohol (Mendis et al, 2011: 3).

Tobacco, alcohol, and physical activity seem relatively easy to get right – no tobacco, little alcohol and moderate exercise – but how might we decide how much MDPs is optimal for health? Perhaps you are thinking that dietary recommendation by your government will help. If so, here is an interesting account on dietary recommendation.

The early development of dietary recommendations globally was largely influenced by the work of Baron Justus von Liebig, the 19th-century German chemist who believed – wrongly as it turns out – that the more physically active a person, the more protein they need. Those estimates drafted in first dietary recommendations in history by followers of von Liebig were not based on what people needed, but on what the average healthy person at that time consumed and so tended to overestimate people’s actual requirements for protein (Raynor and Scarborough, 2010: 192). The doctrine was well accepted as the basis of government food policy well into the 20th century (Cannon, 2003), which may have greatly influenced our dietary choices as a rule of thumb learnt from our parents.

Although estimates of requirements have become more sophisticated since then and are now based more closely on need, the health effects of eating less protein that deemed essential are poorly understood, and the health effect of very high protein intakes are even less clear (Raynor and Scarborough, 2010: 192-193). The excessive fat intake is probable while eating MDPs in general and immoderate salt consumption is inevitable when processed foods – cheese, bacon, ham, sausages, ready meals, etc.

It is not to say that MDPs are bad all together, but it shall be noted that the amount of MDPs we consume may as well be not well-justified. In fact, National Food Administration of Sweden (2009) suggests that “To eat less meat, and to choose what you eat with care is therefore the most effective environmental choice you can make. From a health perspective, there is also no reason to eat as much meat as we do today.”

1. Fiddes, N. (1991) Meat: A Natural Symbol, London: Routledge.

2. Raynor, M. and Scarborough, P. ‘How Much Meat and Milk is Optimal for Health?’, in D’Silva, J. (ed.) and Webster, J. (ed.) (2010) The Meat Crisis: Developing More Sustainable Production and Consumption, London: Earth Scan.

3. Cannon, G. (2003) The Fate of Nations: Food and Nutrition Policy in the New World, London: The Cariline Walker Trust.

4. Mendis, S. (ed.), Puska, P. (ed.) and Norrving, B. (ed.) (2011) Global Atlas on cardiovascular disease prevention and control, Geneva: World Health Organization.

5. National Food Administration, The National Food Administration’s environmentally effective food choices: Proposal notified to the EU, Stockholm: NFA.