Eating meat every day is a decision many of us actively make – but it may not always feel that way. Go into any supermarket in Australia and you’ll find rows and rows of various cuts of meat; eating it starts to feel less like a conscious decision, and more like the default option. Meat is all around us. And so the manufacturing grows.
Plenty of us grew up on dinners of ‘meat and three veg’, and meat is still central to the way we live. On average, Aussies eat 111.5kg of meat per person, every year. That ranks us in the world’s top ten countries of meat consumers (just three places shy of the US, where they eat 120kg of meat per person, per year). The country that eats the least meat? Bangladesh, coming in at just 4kg of meat per person, per year. That’s a mind-blowing 107.5kg difference. The knock-on effects of eating less meat? Bangladesh is the second least obese country in the world. Plus, incidentally, its population is one of the most contented on the planet.
So we eat a lot of meat. What’s a barbie without it? Well, probably not 50 degrees, to begin with. The meat industry as a whole contributes to a fifth of total greenhouse emissions – making it more harmful than the combined exhaust from every form of transportation on earth. There’s a huge amount of effort required to sustain farming and manufacturing of this volume.
Denmark's Council of Ethics has recognised that this is an unsustainable way of eating, which is a big deal for a country that was once home to the most prolific meat-eating population on earth. (The Danes still enjoy chicken in a pork sauce, for example.) From 2002 to 2009, the country managed to reduce its meat consumption from 145.9kg to 95.2kg. Last year, it was suggested that meats should be taxed based on their environmental impact.
So if, like the Danes, we do choose to eat less meat in our everyday diet, what’s the health impact? How can we make sure we’re giving our bodies the nutrients they need? Melanie McGrice, Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says it’s about quantity and quality.
“I think it’s about eating the right amount of red meat, not eating large slabs of it every day,” she says. “Including small amounts of it in a diet on a weekly basis is a healthy way to eat.”
And she points out recommended portions are much smaller than you think.
“A portion is only around 65g cooked or 100g raw. Comparatively, 100g is around the size of a small tin of tuna.”
Melanie is an advocate of red meat over other kinds of meat like pork and chicken.
“One of my key messages to people is to focus more on eating high-quality, lean red meat instead of processed meat,” she says. In her work, she sees clients who opt for sausages and salami, “which they think is red meat, but there isn’t a lot of nutrition in it.”
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends up to 455g of lean red meat each week. That’s around two-and-a-half or three serves of meat per week, she explains. Or, of course, it could be meat alternatives. “Eggs, nuts and seeds, tofu and legumes.”
And if you’re opting to eat less meat, or thinking about becoming vegetarian?
“Make sure you’re including plenty of meat alternatives in your diet,” says Melanie. “So replacing those meat meals with tofu or legumes or eggs – or whatever you’re comfortable to eat – as meat alternatives.”
“With vegetarian and vegan diets, if you’re doing them right, they can be a very nutritious way to eat. I’d probably go as far as to say that they’re a more nutritious way to eat than eating meat.
“But I think it takes a lot more effort, and considering that 36 per cent of the Australian diet is made up of processed junk food, we need to be sending our population messages that are achievable. I think we need to be practical and realistic.”
Should you be eating less meat? The answer depends on the balance of your diet as it stands, your environmental concerns and your personal taste. As the saying goes, we all have to choose our battles, and there are various steps we can take to care for the future of our planet and help lessen the effects of global warming. If you do opt to eat less meat, have somewhere where you can save vegetarian recipes and inspiration – a Pinterest board, or a note on your phone – so they’re easy to access when you need them.