That’s because meatpacking and food-processing workers are getting sick and some are dying from Covid-19.
Some 20 meatpacking and food-processing workers have died from Covid-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The health benefits of eating less red meat
Americans eat a lot of meat. The average adult ate between three and four servings a week from 2015 to 2016, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
That’s not too far off the maximum of three servings a week recommended by the World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research in a 2018 report. But at least a third of American adults eat at least one serving of red meat each day, far exceeding the limit.
“An optimally healthy diet should be low in red meat,” said Cheung, who has a doctorate in nutrition. “There’s plenty of data that [meat] increases the risk of colorectal cancer, other types of cancers, heart disease, diabetes and the higher risk of dying from these things.”
Some of these health conditions are especially serious during the pandemic.
“With Covid-19, the underlying conditions of heart disease and diabetes increase the risk,” Cheung said. “You become much more vulnerable and increase the risk of dying and complications.”
The numbers are clear: Eating less meat is good for you.
But if you’re considering reducing your meat consumption, Cheung noted that it’s important to be careful about what you eat instead. Ensuring you get enough protein and vitamins and minerals is key. Here’s what you need to know and more.
Can you get enough protein without eating meat?
While many consumers wonder if they’d get adequate protein without eating meat, Cheung said that for most Americans, it shouldn’t be a concern.
(A lack of protein is a serious threat in some developing countries or during times of famine, Cheung noted, as severe protein malnutrition can cause a nutritional disorder called kwashiorkor. It is very rare in the United States.)
Cheung said it’s easy to hit that target even without red meat.
Instead of red meats or processed meats, Cheung recommended eating fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, all of which are healthy and high in protein. Poultry, including turkey and chicken, is another good option.
“Poultry is fine,” Cheung said. “There is no negative effect seen with poultry.”
It’s important that Americans not replace fresh beef and pork with processed versions, Cheung said, as those foods can bring additional health risks.
Getting enough vitamins and minerals
While most Americans are getting plenty of protein, Cheung said there are other key vitamins and minerals found in red meat that consumers should replace when cutting back, especially vitamin B12 and iron.
“Iron can be a problem because other foods don’t contain as much iron as red meat,” she said, adding that the mineral is easily replaced with supplements. “Taking a multiple vitamin that contains iron is easy and not very expensive.” Bumping up your intake of iron-rich foods such as dark, leafy greens, oysters, lentils and soybeans is another good option.
The vitamin, which supports brain and nerve-cell functioning, is found in beef, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, so simply cutting back on beef won’t be a problem. Fortified products such as nutritional yeast, breakfast cereal and enriched plant-based milks also contain B12.
If you’re not getting enough in your diet, Cheung recommended seeking out a vitamin B12 supplement.
Adjust your kitchen routines
Whether you’re cutting out beef for health reasons, or simply to lower your grocery bills during the pandemic, making the shift will mean creating some new habits in the kitchen.
“If you’re a person who likes making burritos, make a burrito,” he said. Instead of beef or pork, he suggested adding in extra vegetables or avocado. “It’s much smarter to simply eat the foods you’re used to eating and make a one-to-one swap.”
When you’re hungry for a snack, Kateman recommended reaching for a handful of nuts. “Nuts have a lot of protein in them,” he said. But for maximum nutrition at a low cost, Kateman said it’s hard to beat legumes, which include lentils, beans and peanuts.
Both tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans, which is also a legume. If you’re not familiar with cooking these, Kateman suggested experimenting with edamame, green soybeans that are available in the freezer sections of many grocery stores and can be eaten boiled.
Whatever you decide, Kateman, like Harvard’s Cheung, emphasized that reducing your meat consumption doesn’t require a huge lifestyle shift.
“We make food choices every day, usually three times a day,” he said. “A lot of people think meat consumption is all or nothing, but that’s just not true.”