Panel 4 - Nutrition and wellness

As stated by WHO and FAO, changes in the diet in the second half of the 20th century have seen 'traditional, more plant-based diets replaced by high-fat, energy-dense diets with a substantial content of animal foods'. This, they conclude, has played a 'key role' in the upsurge in diet-related preventable diseases, the so-called 'diseases of affluence'. [WHO/FAO2002]

While hunger and the lack of vitamins and minerals, which are widespread in poor and developing countries, do their greatest damage early in life, overeating degrades the body gradually, with heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses striking typically in middle and old age. A worldwide assessment of disease undertaken early in the 1990s by the World Bank and Harvard University captured the broad impact of malnutrition on health. The head of the Harvard study team stated that overeating is responsible for at least as a large share of illness worldwide as hunger: poor nutrition accounts for more than half of the global burden of disease. [Gardner2000]

Fortunately, illnesses from overeating can be prevented or reversed through changes in diet and lifestyle. 30-40% of cancers, 17-22% of coronary heart diseases and 24-66% of diabetes can be prevented by strongly decreasing consumption of saturated fats (found in animal products such as meat, especially red meat, eggs and dairy products) and increasing physical activity. [Gardner2000]

One study has identified meat, dairy foods, eggs and table fats and oil as contributing 63% of the total fat, 77% of the saturated fat and 100% of the cholesterol (found in animal foods only) by Americans [Nestle1999].

Diets high in calories and fat encourage obesity, which raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and various cancers. These four categories of disease account for more than half of all deaths in the affluent countries. Dr. Graham Colditz of the Harvard School of Public Health has estimated that among obese American adults, slimming to a healthy weight could prevent 96% of diabetes cases, 74% of hypertension, 72% of coronary heart disease, 32% of colon cancers and 23% of breast cancers. Moreover, as obesity spreads to an ever-younger population, the cases of diabetes in children and young people are greatly increasing (from 4% in the early 1990s to 20% in the late 1990s) and it is likely that other "adult" diseases - from heart disease to stroke and cancer - will also strike young people more frequently. [Gardner2000]

A joint research effort by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust found that traditional diets associated with fewer nutrition-related illnesses and lengthy adult life expectancies are generally plant-based - rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts - optionally supplemented by sparing amounts of animal products. [Gardner2000]

This raises both health and economic concerns: poor nutrition destabilizes a nation's health care system. The overweight and obese in the Netherlands visit their physicians 20% and 40% more, respectively, than people of healthy weight and obese people are 2.5 times more likely to require drugs prescribed for cardiovascular and circulation disorders. [Gardner2000]

Comparing the prevalence of hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gallstones, obesity and food-born illness among vegetarians and meat eaters in the USA, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine estimated total annual medical costs in 1995 related to meat consumption of between $29 billion and $61 billion. The cost would likely have been higher if stroke and other arterial disease had been studied as well. [Barnard1995]

At a time when publicly-funded health services are under increasing pressure, the escalating financial costs associated with cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes pose a major threat to already overstretched health resources.


Barnard N.D., Nicholson A., Howard J.L., "The medical costs attributable to meat consumption", Preventive Medicine, November 1995

Gardner G., Halwell B., "Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition", World Wathc Institute Paper 150, March 2000

Nestle M., "Animal v. plant foods in human diets and health: is the historical record unequivocal?", Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (1999), 58, 211-218

WHO/FAO, Diet, nutrition, and the prevention of chronic disease. Report of the Joint WHO/FAO expert consultation, 26 April 2002.