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A New Life For an Old Idea

By Matt Brignall
July 5, 2011
File under: Diet, Health Concerns, Illness Prevention, Natural Alternatives, Natural Health, Nutrition, Sustainable Food, Uncategorized


In the same way that a broken watch is right twice a day, every once in a while the nutrition beliefs of the natural health community and the academic community line up in unexpected ways. This is the case with the reanimated recommendation of Meatless Monday.

The concept of a Meatless Monday as a means of conserving scarce resources is nearly 100 years old. It was developed in response to food shortages during World War I, and was revived during World War II. But once peacetime rolled around, the programs were placed in the same mothballs as the Send Over Smokes program and the Liberty Bond.

In 2003, as part of the Healthy Monday series of campaigns, the guy responsible for the advertising catch-phrase “don’t squeeze the Charmin” revived the Meatless Monday program. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health quickly signed on. Now, the program has a flashy website and a shout-out from the New York Times.

What I find so interesting about this everything-old-becomes-new-again revival is that the reason behind the program is 180 degrees away from the original. While the wartime vegetarian days were a response to shortage, the new version is a response to excess. In fact, the promotors of the modern MM program suggest a number of potential health benefits from eating less meat. While I think they’ve cited data a little selectively to prove a point, I do agree that eating a more plant-based diet may improve health outcomes in some important areas.

In addition to individual health benefits, the Meatless program is suggesting that could improve the health of the planet. In particular, livestock raising produces more greenhouse gasses than transportation – 18% more according to a recent UN report. And because livestock grazing uses such a large percentage of the world’s arable land, meat eating by the rich could potentially drive land shortage to feed the poor. Meat industry lobbyists have predictably challenged these assertions.

Economic concerns notwithstanding, I am a proponent of the Meatless Mondays initiative. I think it is a great way to encourage people to explore plant-based foods, and if practiced widely, could have tangible positive environmental consequences. But then, I’ve been celebrating Meatless Sundays through Saturdays for about 16 years.

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