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Meatless Monday

Behind the Campaign

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Robert Lawrence, MD, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a reasonable man. All he asks is that we forgo eating meat one day a week. Yet this very suggestion has managed to upset both the meat industry and some vegetarians. Clearly this seemingly innocuous advice has touched a nerve or two, as I discovered when I asked Dr. Lawrence about his efforts.

As Director of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Lawrence provides the academic foundation for Meatless Monday, a national public-health campaign aimed at reducing our consumption of saturated fat by 15% by 2010. The campaign takes aim at meat because it is a primary source of saturated fat in our diet. “There is no evidence yet of the biological value of saturated fat, and abundant evidence of its detrimental effects,” he notes. In fact, it is strongly linked to coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer, the leading causes of death in the United States.

Americans eat more meat than any country in the world. According to Dr. Lawrence, we consume an astonishing 8 billion animals a year—most of it poultry, but that number includes at least 100 million hogs and 35 million cattle. That’s a lot of meat for a human population of just under 300 million. The average American male eats 160% of the government’s recommended daily intake of meat; the average female eats close to 140%. It is entirely reasonable, in Dr. Lawrence’s view, to cut our meat consumption when we eat so much of it.

Yet 15% of 8 billion animals is a significant number for the meat industry to swallow. Meat producers would argue that they are producing leaner animals, although one pork producer has promised to breed fattier meat for low-carb dieters. But it is Dr. Lawrence’s other underlying concern that rankles the industry. He makes the point that meat is also unhealthy because of the use in breeding of prophylactic antibiotics and hormones that ultimately end up in the human food supply. He also notes that another problem with eating large quantities of animal fats is the build-up of organic pollutants that are found in the fatty layers of animal tissues.

So what should we do? Dr. Lawrence is a realist. He knows that people are not going to give up meat for good. This is where he disappoints hard-line animal advocates and some vegetarians, who believe the campaign doesn't go far enough. Some are outraged that fish is not included as meat in the Meatless Monday campaign. Yet the reason is clear: the main focus is on reducing the amount of saturated fat in our diet. Fish is a good source of heart-healthy fats. Dr. Lawrence stresses: “We’ve been trying to build a broad consensus, and not project this as a campaign for vegetarianism or veganism.”

While Dr. Lawrence and his colleagues continue to explore the environmental implications of meat production, the campaign itself invites us to eliminate meat just one day a week to improve our health. On other days, we are encouraged to choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products as other ways to curb our intake of saturated fat. By way of encouragement, Dr. Lawrence reminds us, “Inch by inch is a cinch; yard by yard is hard.”

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