In the News: How Much Meat

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Today we have a news round up that’s guest written (sort-of) by Marion Nestle.

In spite of Local Banquet’s media empire status, Marion Nestle (nutrition commentator and New York University professor) is not on our speed dial. However we noticed a fair amount of news traffic around meat and nutrition science, sat down to do a round up this weekend, and learned that Marion Nestle had done one already. It is linked here:

It’s probably better than what we would have done. For one thing, she uses the term “nutritional nihilism” which we would never have come up with on our own.

She also links graphics like the one at the top of this page. It may be the world’s nerdiest bumper sticker, but it’s not wrong.

The round up is focused on a recent spat over publication of a series of papers, that appeared to be endorsed by the American College of Physicians, that said there was no reason for Americans to consider reducing their meat consumption, not even their consumption of processed meats. This conclusion in spite of the fact that the studies they used did not suggest that to be true.

Marion Nestle is a luminary in nutrition science, and this spat over the Eat More Meat journal is primarily about that - how we approach nutrition and science. Certainly many writers have pointed out its flaws, Marion Nestle herself wrote a book on the topic, Patrick Clinton at New Food Economy has written about the problems, and I think many of us already intuited that eggs were a prime example of flaws in nutrition research but just in case, Salon lays it out for us here.

Yup, nutrition science is flawed - but should that lead us down a path of nutritional nihilism? That type of nihilism is a particular concern because food and diet have become a favorite stomping ground for fraud, including a lot of scams that focus on people (often women) who have not always been well-served by traditional medicine but who certainly aren’t well served by scams. Dr. Abdul El-Sayeed recently aired a podcast episode on this topic, podcasts Slate money plus Call Your Girlfriend came together to look at the issue too, and in the health world’s equivalent of the Fyre Festival or Theranos, there is Belle Gibson and her Whole Pantry app (it did not cure cancer).

Of course there’s plenty of gray area in between all of these points.

That gray areas, and our seeming inability to navigate them, should be of particular concern to those involved in Vermont agriculture. Look at the meat topic. Vermont produces sustainably raised meat, with humane animal management and farmers working to not only minimize the negative environmental impacts of agriculture but to have an overall positive impact on the environment - a point for eating more meat. However, there’s a limited supply of meat of this nature, the production takes much more time, verification and continuous improvement of the methods requires resources as well, and we want farmers and farmworkers to receive fair compensation - that all adds up to less meat available and at a higher price, which would be a point for thoughtfully reducing meat in our diets. To get even more particular, we mean less meat demanded across the entire population (even if we just limit it to the population of Vermont). An individual living in Vermont can easily fill a few chest freezers with a year’s supply of “good” meat and maintain a meat-heavy diet, but our collective demand for meat is huge and we see repeatedly the problems with the pressures that creates. Even that individual with the chest freezers of meat might still need to switch to an Impossible Burger for road trip food to keep the balance.

That’s a lot of nuance before anyone even speaks the word “nutrition.” In fact, we’d go so far as to say the quantity of meat consumed in this debate isn’t even relevant - what’s relevant is our all-or-nothing approach to dietary advice. Why does the media reward implausible extremes? Why do we, as thinking people who realize that can’t be true, let them get away with it? Are we on a road to nutritional nihilism? The answers will matter to everyone.