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Meat Consumption and the Leading Cause of Death

November 11, 2021

The current leading cause of death in the world is heart disease, which is responsible for at least one out of every four deaths in the United States alone. It is a chronic disease that encompasses both stroke and heart attacks, the later being the most common. The western diet, with its emphasis on processed foods, meat and dairy, is directly linked to the prevalence of heart disease. The CDC recognizes high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and smoking as major risk factors of heart disease, two of which are directly correlated with the American diet. 

Pathologists have also discovered atherosclerosis—the build up of plaque, fat, cholesterol, and blood cells in arteries—within the arteries of heart disease victims. Plaque buildup blocks the inside of the arteries, decreasing blood flow, and causing chest pain, weakness, pain, and shortness of breath before fatal effects. Additional research discovered early signs of atherosclerosis in half the children, aged 10-14, who died of accidental causes in America. That number increases to 77% for American men, average age 22, who died in the Korean War. High blood pressure and high blood fat causes chronic damage to the lining of the arteries which the body must repair with the plaque substance that facilitates atherosclerosis. This begins a cyclical process where more plaque is needed as dietary behaviors are not amended. The eventual rupturing of the buildup of plaque can then block arteries, which leads to stroke and heart attacks.

Despite this fact, the typical western diet neglects fruits and vegetables, which supply necessary dietary nutrients without the health complications and can help prevent chronic diseases. In 2018, Americans consumed half of the USDA recommended fruit and vegetable serving while overconsuming meat and eggs by 1.5 times the recommended amount. 

Because the fat content of animals can be manipulated by feed, the ingredients used in animal feed are significant in terms of both the grade of the food products and the possible human health impacts. But as factory farms find ways to reduce costs, they exploit this fact to produce higher fat, lower quality meat, high energy grain feed with additives which emphasize growth rates and feed-to-weight conversion. As a result of the lack of feed regulation, the standard feed can be replaced by other cost effective fattening substitutes such as discarded food products, and in some rare cases include orange peels, cookies, and marshmallows. A diet higher in saturated fat poses risk of heart disease and other health complications. 

Another standard animal feed practice that poses a cardiovascular risk is the use of arsenic in the feed of poultry. Not only is arsenic a known carcinogen, it has been shown to cause heart problems as well as contribute to risk factors such as obesity and diabetes. Roxarsane, a derivative of arsenic, is approved by the FDA to be used in the feed of poultry to facilitate growth. As a result arsenic can be found in meat and in water sources that are contaminated by factory farms. These ingredients deviate from the typical vegetarian diet of these animals. Addition of products such as rendered meats serve as cheap protein and push for a higher fat content in the animals but do not reflect their natural diets. Not to mention other animal feed ingredients that may pose their own health risks: animal waste, antibiotics, preservatives, adulterated food, and the list continues. You can check out the full list of animal feed ingredients permitted for use in the U.S. here.

Compared to pasture fed livestock, factory farming has mechanised the growth and consumption of animal products to the point where neither animal nor human health is considered and therefore provides nonoptimal calories to those who consume animal products. Factory farmed animals are significantly lower in omega-3 levels, which can have heart healthy benefits, while omega-6 levels, which contribute to obesity and other risk factors of cardiovascular disease, reach about 17 times the recommended ratio within the western diet. Additionally, factory farmed beef has lower vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and some B vitamins. Broiler chickens, which have been genetically modified to grow substantially within a short time, have higher fat content than chicken grown outside of factory farming. This rapid growth and fat content can lead to a number of health problems for the chicken itself such as coronary artery disease, which is essentially atherosclerosis. Our factory farmed chickens basically have heart disease before we consume them.

When our eating patterns develop to the point where millions of lives bear the cost of preventable deaths, it prompts the need to reevaluate our current systems. 

The American Heart Association recommends dietary changes to combat heart disease that include emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and legumes, all components of a  plant-based diet. These foods increase high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) while decreasing heart disease causing low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol). A plant-based diet has even been shown to decrease risk of fatal heart disease by 40%. Although transitioning may have its difficulties, steps towards a more plant-based lifestyle can have significant health benefits.

Edward Kwarteng a 2021 summer intern at FFAC. Bronx resident attending the University at Buffalo studying Mathematics and Economics.