Meat won’t increase life expectancy

| Post published on February 25, 2022
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Meat won’t increase life expectancy

“Sorry vegans! Australian study finds eating MEAT correlates to a longer life expectancy” say the Daily Mail headlines. The research team, led by University of Adelaide researcher in biomedicine, Dr Wenpeng You, compared life expectancy with meat consumption among the populations of 175 countries based on data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. They found that countries with a greater meat intake also have a greater life expectancy and decided the two were related. Interestingly, beer and wine come out relatively near the top among some of the high-meat consuming countries too!

The FAO’s most recent data lists the top five meat consumers as Hong Kong, USA, Australia, Argentina and Spain. The bottom five were Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. It’s not surprising to see a discrepancy in life expectancy between these two groups but surely education, income, public health spending and access to clean water, among many other factors, have a larger impact on life expectancy than meat intake. Scientists say that Hong Kong’s leading longevity, for example, is: “the result of fewer diseases of poverty while suppressing the diseases of affluence.” A combination of prosperity and low levels of smoking helps.

While this study accounted for some confounding factors (eg calories consumed, wealth, urbanisation, obesity and education), they acknowledged shortcomings in their analysis: “nutritional variations among countries include many more variables than those included into this study. They didn’t compare the quality of foods being eaten in different countries – a significant flaw.

Much of this study appears to reflect opinion rather than fact. Having said that, Professor Maciej Henneberg, senior author (principal investigator) has published research supporting the link between meat-eating and obesity.

The study says: “A recent dietary advice published by Lancet Public Health advocates an increase of dietary meat in order to benefit our heart health and longevity.” But it didn’t! It advocated carbohydrates making up 50 per cent of energy in “a balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fish, dairy and unprocessed meats – all in moderation.” In fact, the EAT-Lancet Commission say: “A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.”

They question the link between saturated fat in red meat and the onset of atherosclerosis (furring up of the arteries) contravening all official guidance which warns against saturated fat. They also question the huge body of evidence linking meat with disease saying: “there has been no clinical trial evidence to consolidate the putative negative effects of processed meat consumption for human health.” Are they questioning the World Health Organisation’s finding, along with a wealth of other evidence, that processed meat is a Group 1 carcinogen and causes cancer? This is wilfully misleading!

The research showing how meat harms, they say, is not reflected in official healthy food guidelines. But it is; the UK government’s Eatwell Guide encourages people to consider alternative sources of protein to meat: “Pulses, such as beans, peas and lentils, are good alternatives to meat because they’re lower in fat and higher in fibre and protein, too.” They advise eating less red and processed meat like bacon, ham and sausages too.

They attempt to discredit ‘vegetarian research’ criticising the methodology of a number of highly respected large-scale studies. The reputable Seventh-Day Adventist studies, for example, take many more variable and confounding factors into account than this study, as does the large EPIC-Oxford study that has reported many health benefits for plant-based diets.

Lastly, they say: “From the evolutionary point of view, meat has arguably been an indispensable component in human diet for millions of years, which is evidenced, genetically, by meat digesting enzymes and digestive tract anatomy.” This demonstrates an outdated understanding of human evolution and physiology. Consider our blunt soft fingernails, our short canine teeth and amylase, for example, the enzyme produced in our pancreas and salivary glands that helps us digest carbohydrates. We are much more suited to a plant-based diet than one containing meat and evidence shows that our Palaeolithic ancestors ate a much more plant-based diet than previously thought. The average life expectancy of our ancient ancestors was just 25 years. So, even if they did live on a diet packed with meat (they didn’t) they simply didn’t live long enough to develop heart disease! Not a good starting point for modern dietary recommendations.

Earlier this month research based on meta-analyses and data from the Global Burden of Disease study published in the journal PLOS Medicine, reported how dropping meat, dairy and sugary foods and eating more pulses, wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and nuts could increase your life expectancy by more than a decade. Much better evidence-based advice!

Find out how evolution shaped us to be naturally vegan here.

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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