The days are long gone now when being classified as a vegetarian came with the tag “crackpot” or “hippie” as more and more people are opting for a meat-free lifestyle. And in fact, when you think about it, being a vegetarian actually makes good sense – from both a health perspective and an environmental and economic one. Why? Well, there are many reasons.
Pros of a Vegetarian Diet
In a three-part paper entitled “The Argument for a Vegetarian Diet” Martin Feldman, MD and Professor Gary Null, an expert in nutrition, illustrate quite poignantly and devastatingly why adopting a vegetarian diet could not only solve many of America’s population health concerns, but also help feed the world and save the planet from devastating ecological damage as well as general climate change.
First, on the health front, study after study continues to reveal the simple truth that a vegetarian diet is one of the healthiest diets one can adhere to, and in fact it has been 13 years since the US Secretary for Health and Human Services first came out to promote the fact that wholesome vegetarian diets offer a huge advantage over diets containing meat and other foods derived from animals.
One of the biggest myths about the vegetarian diet is that it is deficient in vital nutrients, and therefore potentially unhealthy. But this is nonsense, as the American Dietetic Association has pointed out in its July 2009 Journal in which it dismisses the claim of the anti-vegetarian brigade by stating that a vegetarian diet can meet all the current recommendations for key nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, it says, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Furthermore, it adds that vegetarian diets are “appropriate” for all stages of the human lifecycle.
Is Going Vegetarian Healthier, Perhaps?
From a health perspective, research has proved time and again that an abundant consumption of vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts and legumes are all linked to a reduced risk of contracting several life-threatening and chronic diseases.
Losing Weight on a Vegetarian Diet?
For instance, research has indicated that a vegetarian diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease – the number one cause of death in the States. Other studies have concluded that vegetarian diets also reduce the chances of contracting diabetes, helps in the battle against obesity, aid in weight loss and can stave off many cancers. A National Institutes of Health-ARRP Diet and Health Study of 500,000 participants aged 51 to 70 showed that those who had a higher proportion of red meat intake had a statistically increased risk of contracting throat, liver, colorectal and lung cancer. Also, the International Journal of Cancer has reported that cancers of the colon, rectum, pancreas, breast, ovary, uterine corpus, and prostate are linked to the amounts of animal products consumed. Further studies have proven that plant-based sterols and stanols play a very significant part in lowering blood pressure and have a positive impact on reducing “bad” cholesterol in the blood.
To further emphasize the point, a study of members of the religious group the Seventh Day Adventists found that their abstinence from all meat, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco had a significant impact on their blood pressure when comparing their lifestyle against other population groups, the researchers noting that this difference could be explained by the vegetarian diet of the Adventists. A heart disease study among Adventists and non-vegetarians found that the Adventists were three times less likely to experience coronary heart disease than meat-eaters.
The list goes on, and the more one looks into it, the more one realizes just how damaging meat is to human physiology when over-consumed. And that is alarming for Americans, because they are the biggest consumers of meat on the planet. It is interesting to note that physiologically, humans are in fact vegetarians compared to carnivorous animals. Meat-eating animals have short intestinal tracts which mean meat remains in the body for shorter periods. Humans, on the other hand, have longer digestive tracts, which leads to some parts of the meat we consume staying in our bodies for up to four days. Our body temperature is 98.6 degrees, so you can imagine what is happening to that left-over meat – it is rotting away inside us, putrefying. It is this putrefaction of meat that could be one of the major causes of colon and prostate conditions researchers have found.
Meat, Calories and Weight Loss
Another myth about meat, some researchers are saying, is that animal protein is low in calories. Did you know, for example, that an average 16-ounce steak has about 1,500 calories? Now that’s a frightening statistic and only goes to prove that meat consumption is one of the primary factors in causing obesity in the United States.
On the subject of meat, it is worth noting that there is no fiber in meat at all – and yet it has been firmly established that fiber in the human diet is vital for the speedy digestion and elimination of food waste. And where do we get the most fiber from? Vegetables, fruits, grains, cereals, nuts and seeds. But not meat. Meat is difficult to digest and can remain in the intestines for lengthy periods of time. And because meat is high in saturated fat, as well as calories, the longer it stays in the body the more damage it is doing to our cholesterol and fat levels.
And because meat is such a much-loved and highly prevalent food on the nation’s menu, it is little wonder there is a high rise in obesity in the American population…and the subsequent propensity for coronary heart disease as the nation’s number one killer.
According to Feldman and Null it is the misconception that protein from meat is the only source for this important dietary requirement that is the cause of the nation’s many health concerns. They point to the 1940s as a key time in American history as far as eating habits are concerned, and that meat, eggs and dairy products were viewed as “complete” proteins, whereas legumes, grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits were seen as “incomplete” despite there being no foundation for these claims whatsoever. In other words, the contribution that plant foods make in terms of protein supply was totally ignored. In the 1950s, meat was further promoted as “good” to eat when the United States Department of Agriculture came up with the over-simplified “Basic Four Food Groups” (milk group, meat group, vegetable-fruit group and breads-cereals group) and encouraged people to eat from the four basic groups to ensure they were getting the “recommended daily allowance” of nutrients that the authority deemed essential for good health and well-being.
Thus the concentration on meat became more focused, and a rise in meat production quickly followed to the point now where the “importance” of meat is so firmly ingrained in the American psyche that people still can’t see how damaging it is. As Feldman and Null point out, national health-care costs related to meat consumption amount to tens of billions a year. Despite this, the diet of Americans still centers on meat and dairy products at most meals, meat being synonymous with “protein, health, and strength.” And although the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society warn against the over-consumption of meat, our citizens still ignore the call.
Still on the health aspect, the list of drugs that are fed to cattle to “build them up” for human consumption is staggering and really quite unappetizing when read. According to the National Research Council food animals are plugged with five major classes of drugs to rear them. These are topical antiseptics, bactericides, and fungicides; ionophores; hormone and hormone-like production enhancers; anti-parasite drugs; and antibiotics to control disease and promote growth. The worry is that the use of antibiotics in animals could rebound on humans in that disease-causing bacteria could become resistant to antibiotics and become less successful in treating life-threatening diseases in humans. It is also a concern that the hormones pumped into beef cattle can cause cancers in the animal. Although this has not been found to affect the marketability of meat for human consumption, it is not yet known whether cancer is viral. If it is, then there is a threat that cancerous beef could be transferred to humans.
From a health point of view then, the over-reliance on red meat for protein would seem to make little sense given the associated health risks as outlined above. But what of the economic and ecological point of view?
Environmental Benefits of Going Vegetarian
Feldman and Null make some interesting arguments on these questions – namely that an awful lot of finite resources are wasted in the production of animals for food compared to the same resources being used for plant cultivation, all in the name of protein. All the land, water, and energy that go into growing grain and vegetables used for rearing cattle could be used instead to feed people directly. The irony is when we finally come to eat the animal reared on these resources, we get no more nutrients than the plant itself could have supplied!
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the livestock sector’s effect on the environment is “so significant” that it needs to be addressed with urgency. In a report entitled ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ (2007), the FAO says that the livestock sector is in the top three for causing the most “serious environmental problems” at every scale from local to global, and predicts that the problems will get worse not lessen as populations and incomes increase and food preferences change. The report reveals that in all livestock production accounts for70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the entire land surface of the planet. A prime example of this is the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest where 70% of the decimated area is now pastures, with feed-crops taking over the rest.
Feldman and Null go on to reveal eye-popping statistic after statistic in their extensively researched paper which raises some very good questions about the value and need of the livestock industry. For example, they poignantly point out that the increase in grain production has gone more and more to feeding animals rather than feeding people, which returns very little in way of dietary benefit. It is also quite alarming to read that it takes 16 pounds of feed grain to produce one pound of beef flesh. That equates to 15 pounds of grain wasted for every pound of beef consumed. Put another way by ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell University, it takes 6 kilograms of plant protein to produce 1 kilogram of animal protein. Other smaller food animals like pigs and chickens don’t need so much – but they do still use it which in many ways is still a waste when that grain could go to feed the 900 million people who are said to suffer from malnutrition each year around the world.
In the US alone, a total of 46% of land is used for grazing and crops, with all the grain fed to animals able to feed 800 million people if it were consumed directly. The point is if the grains were eaten by people instead of being fed to cattle we would net greater amounts of calories and protein, as well as be consuming unsaturated fat instead of the saturated, hard to digest fat of animal meat and their bi-products. A single acre of farmland can yield 800,000 calories when it grows vegetable food – but when those same vegetables are fed to animals the meat and bi-products yield only 200,000 calories (a 75% loss of health-giving calories). And here’s another alarming fact: there is roughly 1 acre of fertile land per person in the world. Research has shown that only one-third of an acre is needed to provide enough protein for one person for one year. But that is only if we are talking vegetable protein. If we start using animals, we need 3.5 acres per person. Clearly, this rise in livestock production is going to have huge repercussions in the future if something is not done to evaluate, and do something to address this situation.
Other detrimental effects on the environment and ecology caused by livestock production include soil erosion, water pollution, the waste of raw material, reduction of bio diversity, depletion of the water supply, and climate change. According to David Pimentel it takes 100,000 liters of water to produce a 16-ounce T-bone steak, which is 15 times more than a vegetarian alternative although it has exactlythe same protein content. Producing a kilogram of wheat on the other hand takes just 900 liters.
As Feldman and Null conclude in their brilliant paper, it is time the enormous waste and health dangers of meat consumption are properly recognized, and acted upon in the interests of creating a world free from hunger, and disease. And this can be done if the value and principles of vegetarianism were adopted by more people in the western world particularly. By decreasing the demand for meat millions of tons of food could be distributed to the starving and malnourished people in under-developed parts of the world and those areas where disease and famine are rife.
At the end of the day, maybe the attraction of meat is simply down to taste. After all, who can beat the flavor of beef, ham, and chicken? There is something about it that is attractive and makes eating a pleasure. The same cannot be said, perhaps, of eating tofu or some other vegetarian meat alternative. It may be this question of taste that lies at the heart of why meat is so favorable among people, rather than a craving for protein. Nevertheless, it is a fact that over-eating meat and the accumulation of saturated fat that comes with it that is the root cause of many preventable diseases and illnesses that plague the American people.
Ultimately, then it comes down to making a choice. Health and fitness over taste and misconception?
If you are worried about your diet and think that trying a vegetarian lifestyle would work for you whether it be for health reasons or even ethical or environmental ones, contact www.changingshape.com for some professional, one-to-one advice. The team at changingshape.com has been providing individualized nutrition and exercise plans to thousands of people across the nation looking to improve their health and well-being for whatever reason.
Matthew Johnson (Google+) is a certified personal trainer, nutrition expert and an on-line fitness consultant that started ChangingShape.com back in 2001.