Does a low-meat diet improve health outcomes?

Evelyn Lewin

9/04/2019 2:59:55 PM

Following vegan protests across Australia, one GP examines the evidence and reflects on whether people should eat less meat.

Vegan protesters brought much of Melbourne to a standstill on Monday morning. (Image: Ellen Smith)

Veganism was brought to the forefront of our minds as the week got underway, as protestors blocked one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections, and blockaded abattoirs in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
The coordinated protest marked one year since the release of the feature-length documentary, Dominion, which documented factory farming in Australia.
Whether or not the protests could be considered effective or were performed in a constructive way is a matter of debate, but many have argued they were unnecessarily disruptive.
They did, however, undeniably shine a light on their cause.
People who choose a vegan diet may do so for a number of reasons, including animal welfare and the effects on the planet.
But eating a diet free of animal products can obviously also have an effect on one’s health, and vegans are at risk of missing out on a number of nutrients, such as protein, zinc, iron, omega 3, calcium and B12.
That doesn’t mean vegan diets are all bad news. In fact, it seems like research in favour of reducing meat consumption keeps piling up.
Just this morning I came across new research, published in the journal Nutrients, that suggested even eating small amounts meat could increase a person’s risk of death. It showed an association between the consumption of a combination of red and processed meats and a higher risk of both total and cardiovascular disease deaths.
This follows research from 2015, published in the International journal for vitamin and nutrition research, that looked at large prospective US and European cohort studies and meta-analyses of epidemiological studies.
That research indicated long-term consumption of increasing amounts of red meat and, in particular, processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes, in both men and women.
The more I read such research, the more I wonder about our recommendations to patients about meat consumption. That is, that they should follow the Australian dietary guidelines, taking care to limit red meat to three to four times a week, and limit or avoid processed meat.
(Not that people seem to adhere to such recommendations, with the Meat & Livestock Australia reporting that, on average, men aged over 19 in Australia consume 75.2 g of red meat per day, with women aged over 19 eating an average of 50.1 g of red meat a day. But I digress.)
Looking at the research on the health risks of meat consumption makes me wonder whether we should encourage avid carnivores to reduce their intake.
To address this concern, I spoke with GP Dr Evan Ackermann, past Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care. He does not think we need to alter current guidelines about meat consumption.
‘We’re all in search of this perfect health solution and trying to find all these dietary villains all the time, we forget that we’ve got the capacity to cope within our body,’ he said.
Dr Ackermann said the human race has survived on a variety of diets over millennia ‘without too many problems’. He believes the keys to healthy eating are quite simple – moderation and enjoyment.
He supports people who have ideological views when it comes to meat consumption, but isn’t overly convinced by research on the topic.
‘If we did all decrease our processed meats [consumption] we might have less bowel cancer or something, but some of us would probably be miserable, too,’ he said.
GP Dr Penny Adams has a different take on the topic, as seen by her appearance on the Today show to discuss being vegan. She said if she had to choose between the average Australian diet of ‘chips and burgers and meat’ versus veganism for health reasons, she would opt for a vegan diet – with supplements covered.
(Mind you, she believes a Mediterranean diet is preferable to either option.)
Nevertheless, Dr Adams hopes the message she can get out is ‘that people need to increase their plant-base in their diets’.
Dr Ackermann assures that if people eat a varied, well-balanced diet, he doesn’t believe you need to tweak your meat intake for the sake of your health.
‘If people want to chase these diets and it’s important to them then great, I don’t mind. It’s just that sometimes it’s overhyped and I don’t see a lot of evidence supporting it all the time,’ he said.
While Dr Ackermann supports the ongoing advice surrounding meat consumption, there will always be those who choose not to eat it for ethical, environmental or other reasons.

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Dr Ting Kwok Wong   10/04/2019 8:19:33 AM

Everything in moderation is my advice to people. Too much of a "good" thing is "bad" for you! Food is medicinal in all cultures.I equate eating too much fiber to the overdose of medicine!

Alexis Ford   10/04/2019 8:59:50 AM

There is a huge amount of evidence that less meat is beneficial to human health. Even more so eating less meat is beneficial to the environment which will improve human health. I respectfully think Dr Ackermann probably enjoys meat too much to want to change the guideline or even consider it. I have been vegan for 6 years and have never on one day thought I was miserable for not eating meat. I used to love meat but feeling healthier and knowing that my food choices help the planet is so much better than following my stomach.

Jane Morgan   10/04/2019 9:25:38 AM

Dear Dr Lewin,
thank you for adding a medical voice to the issues this undisputably disruptive protest are trying to highlight - animal rights and human consumption.
As a vegetarian (predominately for animal rights) ,recent evidence highlighting the benefits a plant based diet have for reducing impacts of climate change has been an added incentive .To add health benefits to both of these , then really reducing our consumption of meat is a "no-brainer".
I certainly disagree with Dr Ackermann and find his comments disappointing - now is more of a time than ever to look at personal choices - to do something just because it is "enjoyable" certainly doesn't cut it .And in addition,I find more than not most people are surprisingly appreciative of vegetarian meals once they are consuming one!
Jane Morgan

Jane Morgan   10/04/2019 9:34:29 AM

Please see : for the most recent facts -if we are going to eat in a sustainable way then Australians need to reduce their meat consumption by 80%.

Dr Corne Kriek   10/04/2019 10:43:10 PM

While adults have the freedom of choice to become vegan, we have to be careful about the complex dietary requirements of growing kids and pregnant mothers. We just don't know enough. I have concerns about unintended messages that animal rights protests are sending young children.

Dr Dave Jones   11/04/2019 3:53:52 AM

A few facts: 1) Firstly and importantly, I'm an omnivore - but I would really like to be a veggie. 2) Compassionate farming - which should be the norm - is an oxymoron. While compassionate farming is a perfectly achieveable goal, in reality, it is anything but. Live sheep exports? Battery farms? 3) The evidence re processed meats/diet vs risk of bowel cancer is significant, yet when one considers the massive amount of variables and confounding factors, the evidence is hard to realistically interpret. That said, a predominantly veggie (not vegan) diet has not shown evidence of harm and a diet comprised of majority vegatables is unlikely to ever be shown to be detrimental.

4) While I 100% agree animal rights are non-existant, the actions of vegan activists are devisive and unhelpful. The issues highlighted are real & obvious but their methods are counter-productive: a worthy message lost by attacking/invading law-abiding innocents.

5) Everything in moderation.

Phil Smith   3/05/2019 7:19:29 PM

I no longer eat any animal products and can unequivocally say there has been no misery. I loved many good quality dairy products at time.
Often our fear of loss is bigger than our need or want to change.
I made the change the change because an M.D suggested I investigate diet to aid recovery.