Laura Freeman* (left) is a Dual licensed GP, Lifestyle Medicine Physician, and Medical Director of Plant-Based Health Online. She is on Twitter: @PBhealthonline

Shireen Kassam* (right) is a Consultant Haematologist, lifestyle medicine physician, and founder of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. She is on Twitter: @plantbasedhpuk

We are facing a number of inter-related crises that are in part caused by our food system, which is no longer fit for purpose. We expect our food system to produce healthy, nutritious food that is sustainable for producers, society and the planet. Yet our farming and food systems are major drivers of the climate and biodiversity crises and fails to promote the health of populations. One action we could all immediately take to improve the situation is to remove red meat from our diets.

The 2020 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change finds that excess red meat consumption is causing nearly a million deaths globally every year and in Europe this accounts for 3.4% of all deaths. But what is considered excess consumption? In the original Eat Lancet report of 2019 it states, ‘Because intake of red meat is not essential and appears to be linearly related to total mortality and risks of other health outcomes in populations that have consumed it for many years, optimal intake might be 0 g/day, especially if replaced by plant sources of protein’.

Red meat and more so processed red meat is directly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. For example, swapping just one serving of red or processed meat daily for beans or nuts could reduce the risk of heart disease by 10-15%. Replacing just one serving of red meat per day with any other source of protein could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 20%. More concerningly, processed red meat has been classified a group 1 carcinogen and red meat a group 2 carcinogen by the WHO. It is estimated that 13% of colorectal cancer cases in the UK are caused by the consumption of processed meat and this may be as high as 20% of cases when all red meat is considered. The UK government advises no more than 70g or red and processed meat consumption per day, yet on average we are consuming 38.3g of red meat and 55.4g of processed meat per day.

Red meat consumption is not essential for humans and in fact adversely affects health.

Given that red meat consumption is not essential for humans and in fact adversely affects health, it’s become even more important to consider the impact of its production on the environment. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions with half of these emissions from eating beef and lamb. In addition, animal agriculture is a major cause of water pollution, land degradation, loss of wildlife and biodiversity, deforestation, and ocean destruction. The Eat Lancet Report warned that if we continue ‘business as usual’ and do not make changes to our diet, we will exceed planetary boundaries by 263% by 2050. Raising cows and sheep for food is hugely inefficient with a conservative estimate showing that 12.5kg of plant protein fed to these animals provides only 1kg of protein for human consumption. Moving to a ‘flexitarian’ diet in the UK with no processed meat and only one portion of red meat per week, whilst replacing with healthy plant foods could reduce food system-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% and land use by more than 20%, whilst reducing premature mortality by 20%. Just swapping beef for beans would go a long way to meeting our climate targets.

Moving to a ‘flexitarian’ diet … with … only one portion of red meat per week … could reduce food system-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%, whilst reducing premature mortality by 20%.

As healthcare professionals we are trusted members of society and have been called to action to play our part in the fight against climate change. Changing our own diet and supporting our patients, families and communities to do the same is an essential part of the solution. This change can be almost immediate without the need for policy change or government support. It does however require a focus on knowledge and skills to support a healthy transition away from red meat consumption towards a more plant-based way of eating. This is easily achievable and well within the skill set of doctors, with co-benefits for personal health. Some physicians support our own viewpoint that this is now our moral and ethical duty.

With this in mind, we are seeing encouraging changes taking place. On April 29th, Laura and I led a panel discussion at the Planetary Health Alliance annual conference on behalf of WONCA, on the role of family doctors in advising patients to cut down red meat consumption, which was met with a reassuring level of support. My workplace, King’s College Hospital is promoting the international campaign ‘No Meat May’, which calls for citizens to adopt a plant-based diet for the month of May and beyond, to its 10,000 staff members with catering teams providing additional vegan and vegetarian meals.

Removing red and processed meat from our diets is an easy win. Civil society is already taking action with Epicurious, a large repository of recipes, no longer publishing new recipes that contain beef, and one of the world’s top restaurants in New York, Eleven Maddison Park, removing all animal foods from the menu. Let’s not be left behind but act now, for people and the planet.


*DOI: Shireen and Laura are co-founders of the community interest company, Plant Based Health Online.


Featured photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash