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Should Dairy and Meat be Reduced in Hospitals?

Recent calls for the reduction of meat and dairy in hospital meals are misguided and could put people's health further at risk.

Ministry right to urge reduced meat and dairy in hospitals

Scoop Health (NZ)

Friday, August 9, 2019

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/GE1908/S00033/ministry-right-to-urge-reduced-meat-and-dairy-in-hospitals.htm

Article Summary

The New Zealand Ministry of Health recently suggested that meat and dairy should be reduced in hospital meals to reduce climate impact and improve health. In this article, Ora Taiao (The New Zealand Climate and Health Council), supported by Doctors for Nutrition (a vegan advocacy group) have urged the MOH to follow through with these reductions.

Comment

There IS a likely effect on climate change gasses from both meat and dairy farming. However, the effect has typically been modelled in a very absolutist way and may not properly account for the carbon-sequestering effect of pasture lands. It also accounts for the animal feed used in US-style factory farming, which increases the inputs and climate effects, versus Australian and New Zealand style free-range farming. When we consider the carbon sequestering effect of pasture and appropriate land-usage (i.e. not all land is suitable for growing crops, but much of that is useful for raising livestock) the climate effects are much smaller than typically suggested.

On the health front, many of the claims in this article and touted more generally as a reason for reducing animal-derived foods in hospitals lack strong evidence.

Claim: “people who eat a plant-based diet are at reduced risk of many diseases”

This is true…but disingenuous. The research is quite clear that if you eat plenty of plant-derived food, you will be less at risk of disease BUT that does not mean that a plant-based diet should not contain meat!

Claim: “processed meats are group one carcinogens”

Again, this is correct…and again is disingenuous. Processed meats have a much stronger association with cancer, which is why some caution should be exercised with them. But they are often lumped in with red meat or total meat (including white meats) and to do this obfuscates the issue. Several important things need to be considered:

  1. WHO classifications for grouping of carcinogens reflect the strength of evidence that something can cause cancer, not that eating it WILL cause cancer
  2. The WHO classifications characterise risk, not the risk related to dose and exposure
  3. Therefore, small amounts of known carcinogens may not provide for any meaningful increase in risk

That notwithstanding, the risks from red meat are far lesser than that of processed meats and again, any risks are both dose-dependent and need to be considered in the context of the diet overall. For example, in a recent CARR, I highlighted some of the flaws in research linking red meat to mortality risk.

What could be some of the risks of reducing meat and dairy in hospitals?

Meat and dairy provide nutrient-dense, whole food options that can help to support the nourishment of patients in hospitals. Taking them away is likely to reduce bioavailable Vitamin A, zinc, and protein, among other nutrients. Given the poor state of hospital meals, it is concerning that the few remaining food groups supplied in at least some abundance, that can help to support health, might be reduced based on weak and conflicting associative evidence.

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