New Study: Eating Meat Could Be as Harmful as Smoking
Whenever I order a veggie burger, the question comes up. A member of the group will lean over between tearing meaty chunks out of their double-beef special, and make a concerted effort to feign benevolent interest as they ask: "So, you're a vegetarian, are you? Is that because you prefer it or for, well, ethical reasons?"
Here, the questioner is offering the questioned a polite way out. It is phrased so you can apologetically gesticulate towards your halloumi and mutter something self-deprecating about a weak stomach and a delicate constitution. You can chow down quietly on your balls of fried falafel and then scuttle off with your quiet personal views about factory farm conditions, global warming and antibiotic overuse like someone who secretly believes in a particularly suspect 9/11 conspiracy theory. Either that or you can admit that your food choices are, yes, "technically for ethical reasons", and then endure the 212th exhaustive conversation about exactly why you stick to them. Inevitably, this will end up with some well-informed carnivore telling you all about how you are a hypocrite for eating cheese while bacon fat drips slowly down his chin.
Personally, I am completely on board with the idea that most of my views are hypocritical while I still buy butter and enjoy mozzarella. I accept that my position on food is complicated, as well as everybody else's, and I couldn't care less about the bacon fat or the spaghetti bolognese or the rare steak being consumed next to me. Like the majority of people in Sudbury, Suffolk, I don't think that butcher's shops should have their dead animal displays censored when all they do is quite rightly draw attention to the reality of where meat comes from. And to be perfectly honest, a sizeable chunk of my reasoning for vegetarianism comes from a selfish place: I've always had the vague notion that meat – and, in particular, red meat or processed meat – doesn't do the human body much discernible good.
According to the latest study into protein consumption, it turns out that this theory may well have something to it. The National Health and Nutrition Survey has been collating data on 6,381 people across the US, and found that diets rich in animal protein (as opposed to protein routinely taken from plant sources) could be as harmful to health as other vices such as smoking. Those under the age of 65 who regularly consume a lot of meat, eggs and dairy are four times more likely to die of cancer or diabetes – although it's worth noting that, if you make it to 66, beginning to eat a high-protein diet for your remaining years is a better shout than sticking with the steamed kale.
Perhaps you would accuse me of perpetuating the "everything gives you cancer" agenda. But it's not only sensationalist carcinogenic claims that deserve attention in light of these findings. Consider the diets endlessly touted in women's magazines and the most successful self-help books of the late 20th and early 21st century: the Dukan diet, for instance; the internationally renowned Atkins plan; and of course "going paleo". All of these emphasise a drastic cut in carbohydrate intake and a regular protein overload. All of them claim to base their advice on medicine (and, in the case of the paleo diet, sketchy pseudo-scientific claims about what we are "naturally intended" to eat if we are to "mimic the diets of our caveman ancestors".) Now it turns out that losing all that weight for your health might be backfiring spectacularly, taking months of your life off with every spare tyre you shed.
Having been raised in a vehemently anti-veggie northern English city on a steady diet of chicken nuggets and turkey dinosaurs, years before Jamie Oliver began to suggest there was anything wrong with feeding kids the components of dog food, I don't expect to reap the benefits of a lifelong healthy diet anytime soon, either. But if it's true that 39% of women report being on a diet "most of the time", and that the average woman spends 31 years on a diet, then we in particular are setting ourselves up for serious middle-aged falls.
Where protein shakes for "bulking up" and adverts that demand to know whether or not a passerby is "man enough" to eat a five-tiered burger have remained masculine domains since time immemorial, the high-protein dieting phenomenon is fairly new for women. The long-term effects haven't emerged in enough numbers to draw definite conclusions, but this latest finding shouldn't be ignored. It is a credible warning about a society currently obsessed with protein and weight loss, operating in meat production hyperdrive with some of the most accessible fast food that ever existed.
Ultimately, it makes no difference whether you did it for the love of fluffy lambs in spring or deep-seated narcissism combined with a fierce survival instinct: the fact is you should probably eat less meat. You may well have to face a couple of awkward questions over a bowl of hummus, but hey, we all have our crosses to bear. And so, for the love of the NHS, please consign your well-thumbed paleo book to the dustbin. Because it turns out that you may be taking its simpering promises to make you thinner literally at your own peril.