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BMJ Open. 2012; 2(5): e001072.
Published online 2012 September 10. doi:  10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001072
PMCID: PMC3467613

Impact of a reduced red and processed meat dietary pattern on disease risks and greenhouse gas emissions in the UK: a modelling study

Abstract

Objectives

Consumption of red and processed meat (RPM) is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and high intakes of these foods increase the risks of several leading chronic diseases. The aim of this study was to use newly derived estimates of habitual meat intakes in UK adults to assess potential co-benefits to health and the environment from reduced RPM consumption.

Design

Modelling study using dietary intake data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of British Adults.

Setting

British general population.

Methods

Respondents were divided into fifths by energy-adjusted RPM intakes, with vegetarians constituting a sixth stratum. GHG emitted in supplying the diets of each stratum was estimated using data from life-cycle analyses. A feasible counterfactual UK population was specified, in which the proportion of vegetarians measured in the survey population doubled, and the remainder adopted the dietary pattern of the lowest fifth of RPM consumers.

Outcome measures

Reductions in risks of coronary heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer, and GHG emissions, under the counterfactual.

Results

Habitual RPM intakes were 2.5 times higher in the top compared with the bottom fifth of consumers. Under the counterfactual, statistically significant reductions in population aggregate risks ranged from 3.2% (95% CI 1.9 to 4.7) for diabetes in women to 12.2% (6.4 to 18.0) for colorectal cancer in men, with those moving from the highest to lowest consumption levels gaining about twice these averages. The expected reduction in GHG emissions was 0.45 tonnes CO2 equivalent/person/year, about 3% of the current total, giving a reduction across the UK population of 27.8 million tonnes/year.

Conclusions

Reduced consumption of RPM would bring multiple benefits to health and environment.

Article summary

Article focus

  • Consumption of RPM is a leading contributor to GHG emissions.
  • High intakes of RPMs increase the risks of several leading chronic diseases.
  • This research identifies a low RPM dietary pattern that is already followed by a substantial fraction of the UK population and estimates health and environmental benefits that would result from its general adoption.

Key messages

  • Habitual RPM intakes are 2.5 times higher in the top compared with the bottom fifth of the UK consumers.
  • Sustained dietary intakes at a counterfactual reduced level in the UK population would materially reduce incidence of coronary heart disease, diabetes mellitus and colorectal cancer, by 3%–12%.
  • The predicted reduction in UK food- and drink-associated GHG emissions would equate to almost 28 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent/year across the population.

Strengths and limitations of this study

  • This research uses a food-based approach, taking intake-risk associations from meta-analyses rather than assuming the mechanisms by which the foods influence disease risk.
  • The dietary data were collected a decade ago; however, the headline results from a more recent national dietary survey reveal that intakes of all meat categories were broadly similar, although slightly higher in 2008/2009 than in 2000/2001.

Articles from BMJ Open are provided here courtesy of BMJ Group