I’ve been resisting the urge to write about last week’s big news story concerning meat and mortality. The study made a case against high intakes of meat and got lots of press. It reinforced the idea that red meat is bad for us, so that’s a good thing for anyone who promotes a plant-based diet.
Like all epidemiologic studies, it had its share of weaknesses, but the large number of subjects helps to counteract some of that. Furthermore, the results are supported to some extent by other research about the dangers associated with red meat consumption.
But the study also found that eating more white meat, like chicken, was linked to a lower risk of mortality. The take home message, according to many of the articles I read, was “Eat less red meat and more chicken and fish.” It’s the same message we’ve been hearing for decades, ever since people started talking about cholesterol and heart disease. And it’s a message that really sticks. Most health conscious people don’t eat less meat; they eat different meat. And even among those who have cut back on meat for health reasons, most haven’t cut it out.
The same goes for dairy. Whole milk may be taboo on many menus, but it’s simply been replaced with nonfat yogurt.
We have piles of good data about the benefits of eating more whole plant foods and a largely plant-based diet. What we don’t have (yet) are studies showing that vegans have significantly better health than those who eat mostly plant foods but still include some small amounts of animal foods in their diets.
That’s just one of the reasons I’ve never been a big fan of the “health argument” for vegan diet. If we are going to rely on the scientific data in a way that is smart and responsible—as all good vegan health professionals should—then the argument falls short of convincing.
The best advocacy is based on arguments that are rooted in solid fact—the ones that focus on the suffering of farm animals. When it comes to health, I’m not convinced that a few bites of chicken would hurt me. But I know beyond a doubt that those few bites would contribute to animal suffering.