New Zealanders eating “too much meat” again – What does the evidence say?

High meat diet

Once again we have headlines about how we need to cut back on meat consumption for the sake of our health, and the planet’s, fueled by a recent review.[1] We’ve addressed the climate effects of ruminant agriculture before, this (most particularly with regard to intensive dairying and least of all with regard to sheep) is a conversation we need to keep having in NZ, but we would prefer experts to stop conflating this agenda with health advice.

As we’ll show, no-one has good data about how much meat New Zealanders currently eat, but past figures show that large numbers of Kiwis were deficient in the very nutrients that meat supplies in goodly amounts, making overconsumption unlikely. We’ll also present evidence that meat avoidance may have serious effects, which our health authorities may be overlooking.

It is not our position that vegetarian and vegan diets are intrinsically harmful; educated people with sufficient income, or people with sound cultural support in the case of traditional vegetarian diets, are those most likely to eat nutritionally adequate diets without meat, or with little meat. But meat and other animal foods are so nutrient dense as to be dietary fail-safes for the majority of people who do not have time, inclination, money, or education to guarantee good nutrition otherwise, as we will see. Random advice to cut these foods from the diet, delivered without nuance as primetime TV News, can only harm the most vulnerable members of society.

How much meat is in our “high meat” diet?

New Zealand authorities have not calculated the amount of meat in our diets since the 2008/2009 Health and Nutrition Survey. (another survey was done since, but the only diet questions in it were about one about sugary soft drink consumption and one about getting 5+ servings of fruit and vegetables a day).

According to the 2008/2009 nutrition survey, the protein intakes estimates of New Zealanders were 16.4% and 16.5% of energy for males and females respectively, at the lower end of dietary recommendations of 15-25%.

Bread and other grain-based foods supplied nearly a third of our protein intake, only a fifth of which came from red meat, processed meat, and pork. (We calculate this as an average of only 16.5 grams of meat protein per day in a 2,000 kcal diet).
Similarly, meat contributed significantly less iron to the diet (about 13%) than bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals (29%). These figures do not indicate a population overeating meat; if anything, they seem to indicate a population overly reliant on refined wheat in all its forms (only the processed forms of grains, which are supplemented, are a good source of iron).

When these results were published in 2011, Professor Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition, Faculty of Health and Environmental Science, Auckland University of Technology made the following comments on the Science Media Centre blog:

The biggest whammy is for people living in more deprived areas. They are more likely to be overweight or obese, not meeting recommended micronutrient intakes such as iron, vitamin A and calcium. Bread continues to be the major contributor of energy, protein, and carbohydrate to the New Zealand diet, In comparison to white bread, light or heavy whole grain bread was chosen by 60% of the population, but almost 50% of young adults compared to 25% of older people reported eating white bread. The most socioeconomically deprived 20% were twice as likely to consume white bread compared to the most well off 20% (20% vs 40%).

The evidence is clear, in 2008 New Zealanders were not well nourished, many did not have enough money to buy nutritionally adequate and safe foods and were not healthy. Since then the economic recession and the ever-increasing cost of food mean that we are unlikely to be improving. More importantly our present children and those still to be conceived are not likely to have an optimal start to life continuing the cycle. A whole of New Zealand response is required because it is not a personal choice or responsibility- particularly for children. We produce enough good food to feed everyone well – why the gap between the farm and the mouth?

Why indeed? Our red meat exports are higher than ever, yet this seems to be diverted away from our population. Zinc seems to be very much an indicator of animal food (red meat, shellfish, and cheese) consumption in the MOH report, as no good plant sources of zinc are listed.

Nearly a quarter (24.7 percent) of New Zealanders aged 15 years and over were not getting enough of the trace element zinc in their diet, with 39.1 percent of men and 11.2 percent of women missing out. The median usual daily intake of zinc was 12.9mg for men and  9mg for women, and even lower for older people. These intakes were down on those seen in the 1997 survey.

As the RDI of zinc is 14mg per day for men and 8mg/day for women, this means that most men and almost half of women in NZ were below the RDI for zinc in 2008/2009. Hardly a population eating too much meat back then, but we don’t know if this is even worse today. And there’s the problem – experts racing off making blanket recommendations when there is insufficient data about the current position.

Adverse effects of meat avoidance – mental health.

We have serious concerns about the effect of meat avoidance at a population level as a public health-endorsed recommendation, whether the reason for it is ethical, socio-political, environmental, or flat-out poverty. Such advice needs to meet robust criteria for cause and effect, the effect needs to be strong and with little chance harm occurring with populations taking such recommendations.

The study by Hibbeln et al that found increased rates of depression in vegetarian men cites six other studies with similar findings, including two in adolescents.[2] Only one cited study, in US Seventh Day Adventists – a relatively privileged group which plays an important role in the promotion of meat avoidance – had different results.
Another study by Hibbeln et al found that vegetarianism in pregnancy was associated with substance abuse (alcohol and cannabis) in offspring, and screening for the effect of a vitamin B12 absorption allele increased confidence that the relationship was causal (there was no association by diet in those who had genetically poor B12 absorption whatever their diet).[3]

A survey of patients with anorexia nervosa found that vegetarians and vegans were over-represented and were more likely to have a persistent condition.[4]

Compared to controls, individuals with an eating disorder history were significantly more likely to ever have been vegetarian (52% vs. 12%), to be currently vegetarian (24% vs. 6%), and to be primarily motivated by weight-related reasons (42% vs. 0%). The three recovery status groups (fully recovered, partially recovered, active eating disorder) did not differ significantly in percentiles endorsing a history of vegetarianism or weight-related reasons as primary, but they differed significantly in current vegetarianism (33% of active cases, 13% of partially recovered, 5% of fully recovered). Most perceived that their vegetarianism was related to their eating disorder (68%) and emerged after its onset.

The associations between meat avoidance and mood disorders in these studies are strong – they certainly dwarf any associations drawn between meat and any other diseases. We acknowledge this alone doesn’t demonstrate cause and effect. But it does suggest that there is a possibility of harm, and we must be cautious with population-wide advice.

New Zealand needs data on these correlations from within its own population before our public health experts start recommending meat avoidance to a population which has so many vulnerable members, in a country which is facing a mental health crisis.

Meat and cancer, Part 2 (Part 2).

The review goes lightly into the meat and colon cancer association, without a very clear discussion of the stats or the hopelessness of the “processed meat” definition. We’ve discussed this data before, but we’d like to share a much stronger and more convincing association – in 2006 people being treated for colon cancer, the insulin load and insulin index of the diet (a measure of the amount of insulin required to metabolise the food) was strongly correlated with cancer mortality.

The adjusted HRs for CRC-specific mortality comparing the highest to the lowest quintiles were 1.82 (95% CI: 1.20-2.75, Ptrend=0.006) for dietary insulin load and 1.66 (95% CI: 1.10-2.50, Ptrend=0.004) for dietary insulin index. We also observed an increased risk for overall mortality, with adjusted HRs of 1.33 (95% CI: 1.03-1.72, Ptrend=0.03) for dietary insulin load and 1.32 (95% CI: 1.02-1.71, Ptrend=0.02) for dietary insulin index, comparing extreme quintiles. The increase in CRC-specific mortality associated with higher dietary insulin scores was more apparent among patients with body mass index (BMI)⩾25 kg m-2 than BMI<25 kg m-2 (Pinteraction=0.01).

Now, while it’s true that protein requires insulin to be metabolised and that beef has a relatively high insulin load, it is also true that people eating low-carb diets get insulin levels very low whether they eat meat or not; such diets certainly reverse hyperinsulinaemia. Refined carbs are simply going to drive up the insulin effect of other foods like beef; you need protein and vitamins and minerals, and you don’t need sugar and artificial colourings.

It’s refined carbohydrate, sugar and starch, not protein or fat, which is most likley wasting the health of New Zealanders. We can demonstrate this by the improvements in health we see every day when people limit sugar and starch in their diets; not just biomarkers, but improvements in mood, pain, and exercise capacity. The health benefits of carbohydrate restriction are becoming more generally known and accepted with time.

The realisation that sugar and starch are fundamental to  the nutrition-related harm that occurs in populations of developed countries is becoming mainstream now.  The recent BMJ special issue “Food for Thought” is swimming in the science and policy of such a realisation.

There may even be environmental benefits; for one thing, you can now eat the fat from an animal instead of wasting it and replacing it with another food, for another thing, weight loss is a common side-effect of LCHF, even when used as a migraine cure.
And excess weight means people need to eat more. In 2012, biomass due to obesity was 3.5 million tonnes, the equivalent of 56 million people of average body mass (1.2% of human biomass globally). If the obesity epidemic could be entirely reversed, the food savings would be roughly equivalent to the annual food consumption of Australia and Canada combined (minus that of little New Zealand). This is perhaps a drop in the bucket globally, but it is still a lot of people.

Of course, we can treat and farm animals better and be more sustainable. That’s what the apex omnivore –  us humans – must do if we want to leave even a half decent planet for the next generations.

References

[1] Godfray HCJ, Aveyard P, Garnett T et al. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science. 2018 Jul 20;361(6399). pii: eaam5324. doi: 10.1126/science.aam5324.

[2] Hibbeln JR, Northstone K, Evans J, Golding J. Vegetarian diets and depressive symptoms among men. J Affect Disord. 2018 Jan 1;225:13-17. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.07.051. Epub 2017 Jul 28.
https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0165-0327(16)32391-6

[3] Hibbeln JR, SanGiovanni JP, Golding J, et al. Meat Consumption During Pregnancy and Substance Misuse Among Adolescent Offspring: Stratification of TCN2 Genetic Variants. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Published online October 4 2017

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/acer.13494

[4] Bardone-Cone AM, Fitzsimmons-Craft EE, Harney MB, et al. The Inter-relationships between Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders among Females. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012;112(8):1247-1252. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.05.007.

[5] Yuan C, Bao Y, Sato K et al. Influence of dietary insulin scores on survival in colorectal cancer patients. Br J Cancer. 2017 Sep 26;117(7):1079-1087. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2017.272. Epub 2017 Aug 17.

8 thoughts on “New Zealanders eating “too much meat” again – What does the evidence say?”

    1. A good article but perhaps a little more clarification regarding carbohydrates is warranted. We know that there is HUGE importance in including unrefined complex carbohydrates in the diet most particularly in maximising gut microbiome diversity and how it has been devastated by processed foods and sugars. Making your own fermentable vegetables, eg, sauerkraut, kimchi and dill pickles (without the use of vinegar) means you will be supplying a good source of probiotic foods for you gut. Also, making your own bread and doughs from unrefined stoneground flours (preferably organic), such as spelt and wholewheat etc and adding something like broccoli sprouts to your diet all benefit our health. We are as healthy as our gut and brain are and these require good fats, protein and complex carbs.

      That people can’t afford these in NZ and many also here in Australia and certainly in UK and US is a disgrace to our political and economic systems we have in place. Instead we will have an ever growing healthcare burden, which simply makes no sense other than maintaining the status quo for vested interests such as big pharma and food manufacturers who don’t produce FOOD but produce edible like food products instead.!

  1. Why are the Okinawans of Japan the longest lived population group and they eat high carb / low (if any for many of them) animals? Jamie you need to do more depth / breadth of research not just cherry picking that which suits your bias. Paul

    1. Paul are you vegan? I’m thinking we should all declare our biases? This blog was about the evidence for meat consumption in NZ so much m not sure how you comment is relevant to what is written? I’m not sure you have read the rest of my blogs and books which would clearly outline a cohesive scientific hypothesis around insulin resistance and longevity, quality of life and disease, if you have read those you’ll see that I’m not anti carb or think you can’t have lost brevity in a whole host of whole macros, but if you are insulin resistant then carb restricting may be a good option

      1. I think you got to be clear when you indicate that carb restricting may be a good option. I think you are referring to refined carb like sugar and fructose in many processed foods which i agree should be reduced. But more importantly the focus should be on more whole foods, plant and vegetables and not on meat and fats which is the underlying cause of insulin resistant and heart disease.

      2. People have always eaten meat and the only fats in most people’s diets used to be animal fats, yet atherogenic heart disease only began to appear in the late 18th century and only became endemic in the 20th (tracking cigarettes and sugar, and possible seed oils and trans fats). Similar story with type 2 diabetes. Red meat consumption in NZ is down 47% in the past decade yet type 2 diabetes is still increasing at much the same rate. Mental illness, meanwhile, seems to be increasing.

    2. Hi Paul,

      firstly, we haven’t gone into longevity at all, but here are a few facts about okinawa

      The traditional diet of the islanders contains 30% green and yellow vegetables. Although the traditional Japanese diet usually includes large quantities of rice, the traditional Okinawa diet consists of smaller quantities of rice; instead the staple is the purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato. The Okinawan diet has only 30% of the sugar and 15% of the grains of the average Japanese dietary intake.[4]

      The traditional diet also includes a tiny amount of fish (less than half a serving per day) and more in the way of soy and other legumes (6% of total caloric intake). Pork is highly valued, yet eaten very rarely. Every part of the pig is eaten, including internal organs.”
      The pig’s feet, ears, and stomach are considered healthy everyday foodstuffs. Pork is an integral part of Okinawan longevity food.[7]

      “”The quantity of pork consumption per person a year in Okinawa is larger than that of the Japanese national average”

      Between a sample from Okinawa where life expectancies at birth and 65 were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture where the life expectancies were much shorter, intakes of calcium, iron and vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, and the proportion of energy from proteins and fats were significantly higher in Okinawa than in Akita. Conversely, intakes of carbohydrates and salt were lower in Okinawa than in Akita

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawa_diet

      With less rice (root veges instead), no wheat, less sugar, and more use of the whole animal the Okinawan diet is more “paleo” than the Japanese. Everyone projects onto Okinawa whatever it is that they most desire to believe, but it is worth noting that, like most island “Blue Zones”, the demographics of Okinawa were heavily skewed by losses and migration during and after WW2. The people there have never been vegan or vegetarian.

      The Swiss also have maximum male longevity, but no-one looks for a “Blue Zone” there because their diet is high in animal products and “Blue Zones” are a project of the people promoting “plant-based diets”.

    3. It’s unrefined carbs, although yes they do eat white rice.. which is not some demon. They also eat a high level (traditionally) of fish , vbegetables, seaweed and natto (highest available level of vitamin K2 )which “unclogs” or more correctly arteries. or more correctly decalcifies arteries. You can get the same effect from eating plenty of geen veges and cheeses such as Gouda, Brie and Blue vein varities. Another though in passing..this trend to eat salmon fillets skin off is a joke…90% of omega 3 fatty acids are in the skin or just under it in oily fish such a salmon and trout!

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