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The Leading Voices in Food

E216: Who are the biggest beef eaters of all?

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
October 5, 2023

I read a study recently featuring a term I had not heard or seen before: “disproportionate beef eaters.” The study was done by Dr. Amelia Willits-Smith, Diego Rose and colleagues at Tulane University. So, who are such beef eaters and how are their consumption patterns associated with environment and climate change? Today we’re joined by one of the authors of that study, Dr. Diego Rose, who is a professor and nutrition program director in the School of Public Health at Tulane.

Diego Rose is professor at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. His research explores the social and economic side of nutrition problems, with a focus on nutrition assistance programs, food security, and the food environment. He has studied disparities in access to healthy food in New Orleans and has developed a framework for how the neighborhood retail food environment influences dietary choices and obesity. His latest research projects examine grass-roots efforts to improve healthy food access in New Orleans and the environmental impacts of U.S. dietary choices.  Dr. Rose has served as a consultant to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme. He teaches nutrition assessment and monitoring and food and nutrition policy. Prior to joining the faculty at Tulane, he worked for USDA’s Economic Research Service on domestic food assistance policy and in Mozambique and South Africa on food security and nutrition. He began his nutrition career as the director of a local agency WIC nutrition program in a farmworker clinic in rural California.

Interview Summary

You, your colleagues, and your students do the most interesting work on really important issues, such as how diet lies at the intersection of health and environment. This sort of work is so important because there’s a lot of talk about it. But not enough empirical work to really make policy decisions has been done, at least regarding some questions and you’re helping fill like gap. I’m really delighted you could talk to us today. Let’s start talking about this study. Give us some context if you would. Why did you set out to study the characteristics of disproportionate beef eaters?

Kelly, I’ve been doing this work for about seven years – working on a connection between diet and climate change. In the early days when I would do presentations on this research, I would always start the presentation with a slide or two of some big government report or intergovernmental report. Sort of legitimizing the whole topic. Now I find that climate change is so connected to people’s daily lives whether it’s the floods and the heat waves, droughts, fires that that are happening that people know it’s a problem. I don’t need to preface what I’m saying by that. When people think about climate change, they tend to think about it being caused by the transportation sector, perhaps energy use or construction but they don’t tend to think about food systems. But it turns out that human food systems account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Most people don’t think about that. Within that category, livestock is the most important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, within livestock it’s beef. Beef, it turns out, accounts for eight to 10 times more impact than chicken and over 50 times the impact on greenhouse gas emissions than beans. Naturally, we were concerned about beef. If we were going to do an education campaign to let people know about this, we thought, well, who should we target it to? We should target it to the people that are eating the most of it. And how you would target that? Well, you would set a threshold for what’s disproportionate beef consumption and then go about looking at some data to see who’s contributing the most to beef consumption.

That makes perfect sense. Let me ask you sort of a fundamental public health question in this context. Sometimes you get a big impact at a public health population level by making big changes in people who are the biggest users of something. Heavy smokers would be an example or heavy drinkers. That’s the approach you’re taking here. But I know in other cases some people have said that with some consumption patterns that are hard to change, like maybe what people are eating or smoking or drinking, that it makes sense to focus on a different part of the population where you get smaller changes but spread across a larger number of people who are more willing to change, and hence you get a bigger impact. So how do you define who were the disproportionate beef eaters and what were the findings of the study?

To think about disproportionate beef eaters we used the dietary guidelines for Americans. We looked at the healthy US meal plan. The data we had was on daily intakes. That meant that for somebody with a 2200 calorie consumption level that a recommended amount would be four ounces for meat, poultry, and eggs. We thought, well, if you’re exceeding the recommended amount with just one of those foods, say beef, where you could be meeting the recommendation with chicken or eggs or even vegetarian if you wanted to, we thought that was disproportionate. So, we used that as a benchmark, for a disproportionate diet. So, what did we find?

Before you do that, let’s give people some sense of this. When people talk about a recommended serving of meat, they say something that might be about the size of a deck of cards. Is that four ounces you’re talking about? I’m imagining you’re talking about people that eat multiples of that.

You can think of four ounces as a quarter pounder, thinking about a burger, except that it’s cooked weight. Usually when McDonald’s puts out a quarter pounder, that’s the raw weight. We’re really thinking about one and a quarter or one and a third quarter-pound hamburgers. That’s what the threshold is. So, if you’re eating more than that, more than one and a quarter, quarter-pounders a day every day, that’s what we’re considering disproportionate.

Okay, thanks. So, now tell us about what you found in your study.

We found three kinds of things in the study. First, that 12% of people consumed this disproportionate amount of beef. They were more likely to be men, they were less likely to be young people under 30, or older people over 65. They’re also less likely to be college graduates. So, those are the kinds of things we were looking at when we went into it. The other things that we saw were that those 12% of people – and this is what really surprised us because we weren’t looking for this, but what ended up happening – the 12% of people that are disproportionate beef eaters are consuming 50% of the total beef on any given day. That was the surprise. That’s the one that’s got all the headlines. There’s another piece in there that didn’t get as much play, but I think it’s interesting. When you think about beef, you tend to think about a steak on my plate or maybe there’s a burger on my plate. But the truth is over 50% of the total beef that we saw consumed was in the form of mixed dishes. I’m talking about stews and soups and burritos and tacos and sandwiches and pasta dishes. That was the other finding – a lot of the beef that’s been consumed, a majority of it, is consumed in these mixed dishes not just on a hunk of beef on the plate.

Those are really striking findings that 12% of people eat 50% of the beef. And that it’s clustered in certain demographic groups! Really pretty interesting. I also am surprised by the mixed dishes because the vision of my head as we were speaking is that people eating the hamburgers and steaks and things like that. But the mixed dishes are really an interesting part of the picture. So, what do you think some of the factors are that drive meat consumption in some of these groups?

It’s interesting. I think young people are more concerned about the planet in general. They are more clued to these issues and that might be part of the reason they are eating less beef. I think older people might be eating less beef because they’re concerned about health issues. We haven’t talked about that. There are a number of studies, and it is pretty consistent evidence showing that the connection between red and processed meats and heart disease and mortality. I think older people might be more concerned about that and therefore eating less meat. College graduates may be just understanding these connections better, possibly. That is part of it. I think men over women because there are some studies that show that meat plays into masculinity. There is also the idea that men are more willing to sacrifice animals for their own good than women are. These are some studies in the psychology of eating. We don’t do this kind of work, but I think it’s interesting.

From my own observations, and this is in the past more than I’ve seen it currently, but there was a time when the fast-food companies especially were reacting to messages that eating meat wasn’t very healthy. The kinds of messages that they were putting out at the time were, don’t let anybody tell you what to eat. Be a man, stand up, eat our massive burgers. I imagine that all these things are linked together, aren’t they? The marketing practices, the masculinity, the imagery all of it’s a pretty complicated set of topics.

It is. I think they are connected as you pointed out. That makes it all the more challenging to try to do something about it.

So, back to your study now. What do you mean by eating a disproportionate amount of beef? I think you defined it already, but is there more to say and how do you translate your research definition for the public who might be interested in their own consumption patterns?

That’s an interesting point because we do our research and then we have the challenge of trying to communicate it to the public afterwards. Part of that is there are different concepts. What we do in the research setting is not necessarily related to what you would do at home. So, let me describe how that is. For example, in this study, we’re looking at 24-hour recall data. This is a tool that nutritionists use to get a snapshot of what someone ate on the previous day. And they’re very comprehensive. There’s a whole methodology around it to get what is in that day’s food intake. And that’s what we have in our study here. The National Health and Nutrition Examination survey which we use is a nationally representative survey. So, we have over 10,000 adults here that we’re looking at a snapshot in the day. And so, when we’re trying to set up a threshold for what’s disproportionate, we take a look at the dietary guidelines for Americans and translate those into one day. That’s where we got these four ounces of beef more than that would be disproportionate. Then the question becomes, well, what do you do if you’re a consumer? Can I eat a burger and not reach the disproportionate level? Yes, on a given day. But the way that the guidelines are set up is across a whole week. So, really the way to think about it is disproportionate in your daily life would mean eating a burger and a third or more every day, not just on a given day.

That makes perfect sense, so I appreciate that specific advice. What are the connections between consumption patterns that you’re describing and agricultural emissions and climate change?

This idea of a dietary carbon footprint is what are the greenhouse gas emissions inherent in the foods you eat? It’s not the eating that’s the problem, it’s the producing. That is where most of the emissions come from. How does eating affect emissions? If you eat less of something then the idea is that will send a signal back to producers to produce less of it. So, to the extent that emissions are coming from the production side and you are not participating in that, this would send a message to producers to produce less of it. Now if that link is broken, for example, and it can be broken, if American Beef Producers export which they do, then it doesn’t help the planet. In other words, if they keep producing beef and shipping it to Indonesia or someplace else then it’s not enough for us to eat less. It has to be a sort of a global effort.

It does make good sense when you state it that way that a lot of people making these kinds of changes could add up to a big difference, given the role that beef consumption is playing in agricultural impact on the climate. I appreciate you focusing on that. What would you say is the broader importance of this topic?

Diego – I think really the broader importance is to point out that beef is a really extravagant source of protein. You can get the same nutritional equivalents, even better because it doesn’t come with saturated fats, not associated with cardiovascular disease to the degree that beef is. If you were to eat chicken, it’s like one-eighth or one-10th the amount of greenhouse gas emissions to produce chicken than it is beef. If you go vegetarian, even more so. I think the significance is that there are little changes that can be made that would add up. And they can come in from lots of people and they can come in lots of ways in anyone’s diet.


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