Worried about beef shortages and price spikes? Here’s what happens if you eat less meat

CNN  — 

Coronavirus came for Americans’ hamburgers in early May.

On May 5, the fast-food chain Wendy’s announced that some menu items were unavailable; an analyst estimated that nearly one in five Wendy’s franchises was out of beef.

That followed news that some meat processing plants across the US had temporarily closed due to coronavirus.

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.

As a result of the pandemic, 22 meatpacking plants have closed in the last two months. With plants closed, and livestock accumulating, some farmers are desperate enough to put their animals on Craigslist.

Closures have reduced pork slaughter capacity by 25% and beef slaughter capacity by 10%, according to UFCW. Some supermarkets, including Costco and Kroger, are limiting the amount of meat consumers can buy.

Prices are going up, too. But despite the grim news, the potential for reduced meat consumption as the result of shortages could have a silver lining for Americans’ health.

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.

Reducing intake of beef and pork is good for you, said Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s department of nutrition.

“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.”

In a 2011 study Cheung cited, researchers found that for each additional daily serving of red meats that participants ate, risk of type 2 diabetes rose 12%.

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.)

The National Academy of Medicine recommends eating a little over 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. If you weigh 140 pounds, that translates to roughly 50 grams of protein a day.

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.

Processed meats such as bacon, sausage and lunch meats are high in sodium; eating too much salt is correlated to heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis and cancer.

In addition, the World Health Organization considers processed meats to be carcinogenic, citing evidence showing that consuming processed meats causes colorectal cancer. There are also associations between processed meats and both pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

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.

For strict vegetarians or vegans, Cheung said it’s worth ensuring you get enough vitamin B12, too.

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.

When considering a diet change, it’s worth keeping it straightforward, said Brian Kateman, the editor of the “The Reducetarian Cookbook.” Kateman’s cookbook proposes easy ways to swap animal protein for plant-based foods.

“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.”

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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.

Some recipes from Kateman’s cookbook are available online; he recommended starting with a homemade veggie pot pie, or the high-fiber broccoli pesto noodle bowl.

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.”