If meat consumption is really that bad for us, why aren’t people doing anything about it?

This is the question posed by Professor John Potter, the internationally recognised public health researcher and former Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Health, in his recent editorial published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal).

If initial results from the largest nutrition study ever conducted (the on-going, two-decade-long, NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study that follows more than half a million people), haven’t already convinced you that meat consumption really is that bad for human health, then perhaps its latest results, published just this month, will persuade you. Conclusions drawn regarding the role of meat consumption and disease-specific mortality from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study (now at 7.5 million person-years of observation!) have now been expanded to include almost all major causes of chronic disease: consuming red and processed meat increases your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, and lung disease! [1].

Still not convinced? Well Professor John Potter most definitely is, and for good reason too: the results from the Diet and Health Study are consistent with what is a very large and ever-growing body of scientific evidence [2,3]. To provide one additional example, the widely acclaimed Adventist Health Study found that meat-eaters (as compared to plant-based eaters) have higher risk of all-cause mortality and shorter life expectancies [4-6]

Meat Consumption, the Planet, and Our Health








©  2016, Plant Based Living Initiative

‍‍‍©  2016, Plant Based Living Initiative



The direct mechanisms as to how exactly the consumption of red meat leads to these various diseases are less well known. It’s most likely that red and processed meat intake is influencing our health through a number of different pathways. Research has demonstrated harm by way of: increased protein degradation; increased consumption of haem iron, saturated fat, and N-nitroso compounds; L-carnitine cooking-related carcinogens; animal feed interacting with the gut microbiome; contaminants; and, of course, reduced intake of plant foods [7]. Prof. John Potter describes it as “an old fashioned murder mystery with too many suspects”, while emphasising how the takeaway message should be that “current patterns of consumption of red and processed meat are not good for humans.”

The Need for Action

According to Prof. Potter, there is a collective understanding among the research community with regard to this issue. The evidence base already exists, he asserts, in order to inform widespread policy change, which could greatly reduce unnecessary harm to both our population and environment.

Prof. Potter argues that policy action is seriously lacking: “As with many contemporary problems of resource overuse and mal-distribution”, he concludes, “we need to decide whether to act now to reduce human meat consumption or wait until the decay of sufficient parts of the global system tip us into much poorer planetary, societal, and human health.


[1] Etemadi, A., Sinha, R., Ward, M. H., Graubard, B. I., Inoue-Choi, M., Dawsey, S. M., & Abnet, C. C. (2017). Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study. bmj, 357, j1957.

[2] Pan, A., Sun, Q., Bernstein, A. M., Schulze, M. B., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J.Hu, F. B. (2012). Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Archives of internal medicine, 172(7), 555-563.

[3] Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., & Fraser, G. E. (2003). Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(3), 526S-532S.

[4] Orlich, M. J., & Fraser, G. E. (2014). Vegetarian diets in the Adventist Health Study 2: a review of initial published findings. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 100(Supplement 1), 353S-358S.

[5] Fraser, G. E., & Shavlik, D. J. (2001). Ten years of life: is it a matter of choice? Archives of internal medicine, 161(13), 1645-1652.

[6] Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. E. (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 32(5), 791-796.

[7] Potter, J. D. (2017). Red and processed meat, and human and planetary health.

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Planetary Health

Prof. Potter is also very aware of the environmental consequences of our current consumption habits: stating in his editorial that meat intake is as bad for our planet as it is for our health.  His explanations are rather convincing too:

  • Animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than do all forms of world transportation, and is responsible for 37% and 65% of anthropogenic methane, and nitrous oxide emissions, respectively.
  • In addition, 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which are known to cause acid rain and contribute to ecosystem acidification, are attributed to the agricultural sector.
  • Livestock also contribute significantly to groundwater pollution, water insecurity, and deforestation.

Still interested? Check out our Blog Post on Sustainable Eating:


New Zealand's Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector and The Contribution of Livestock (NZ INDC, 2014)

Author: Jon Drew

Jon is a founding member of PBLI and a fourth-year medical student at the University of Otago, in New Zealand. He is currently completing an honour's degree focused on eating patterns that are both healthy and sustainable.