This is a long article, but bare with me, because the information you’ll learn here might be life changing for you. It was for me! Although I briefly mentioned the benefits of a plant-based diet in a previous post, the following article is much more extensive.
According to a 2008 Harris Interactive study of 5,050 respondents, 7.3 Million Americans are vegetarians. This makes 3.2 percent of the U.S. population vegetarian. Approximately 0.5 percent, or 1 million, of those are vegans, who consume no animal products at all. In addition, 10 percent of U.S. adults, or 22.8 million people, say they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.
The number of people following a plant-based diet is growing, and more and more people are becoming interested in vegetarian and vegan diets. Did you know that President Bill Clinton, Christian Bale, Carl Lewis, Demi Moore, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein and many more all follow(ed) plant-based diets?
So what’s the big deal about vegetarianism? Why are so many people following this diet? Why should I learn about it? I’ll try to cover this topic in a nutshell and answer the most basic questions about it.
Let’s start by identifying the different types of vegetarianism:
Pescatarian – a diet that excludes all animal flesh except for fish.
Flexitarian/semi-vegetarian – refers to those who enjoy vegetarian cuisine but continue to include animal products in their diet.
Vegetarian – a diet that excludes all animal flesh, including fish and seafood.
Lacto-vegetarian – a diet that excludes eggs but allows for consumption of dairy products.
Ovo-vegetarian – a diet that excludes dairy products but includes eggs.
Vegan – a diet which excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy and even honey.
Raw vegan/Raw food diet – Raw vegan is a diet which is consumed “raw” and uncoocked (nothing is heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit) and it consists of no animal products; A raw food diet is also uncooked but allows for raw animal products (such as unpasturized milk).
I want to highlight that if anyone is interested in changing/improving their diet, they don’t necessarily have to follow any of these diets perfectly. One of the most important things is to learn and find out what kind of diet works best for an individual. I, for example try not to compartmalize myself too much when it comes to my dietery choices. I call myself a “beegan”, because I eat no animal meat, dairy or eggs, but I do eat honey. Vegan+honey (from bees) = beegan.
What are the main reasons why people become vegetarian/vegan?
According to a 2002 poll of American adults (wikipedia), the following are the reasons for choosing a vegetarian lifestyle:
Chemicals and hormones in animal products 15%
Don’t like the taste 13%
Love of animals 11%
Animal rights 10%
Religious reasons 6%
Concern for the planet 4%
To lose weight 3%
To reduce hunger and famine worldwide 1%
In this post, I will cover health, ethics, environmental issues, and reducing world hunger in relation to plant-based diets.
Is a plant-based diet really that much better for me than the Standard American Diet?
According to Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Dr. T Colin Campbell, Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr. John McDougall and many others, it is! In a nutshell, these Doctors, through extensive studies and experiments, discovered some incredible facts about animal protein and fats and what they do to the human body. All of us know that protein is an important nutrient, just as carbohydrates, fats, water, vitamins, minerals and fibre are. Before we move on, let’s debunk the protein myth in plant-based nutrition. Virtually all plants have protein, and as long as caloric needs are met (through a balanced diet), protein deficiency will not occur (and if it does, other dangerous deficiencies will occur with it). Did you know that beans have more protein per gram than meat, and that romaine lettuce has more protein per calorie than meat? Anyway, protein is easy to get in a plant world. Plants contain amino acids. Our bodies can make some amino acids, but some of them have to be obtained through the intake of foods. The human body retains amino acids for about 12 hours, and combines the self-manufactured and food obtained amino acids into building blocks that repair tissues, build muscles and help us recover. There’s absolutely no need to purposefully combine amino acids in a meal, since a balanced meal is most likely going to provide all of the amino acid combination we need. If for some reason not all amino acids are consumed, the body will receive them in the next meal. Another fact worth mentioning is that the USDA recommends 10-35% of calories from protein where in fact studies show that 5-15% of our daily calories should come from protein. Shocking, isn’t it? We always think that too much of the good thing can’t be bad. But in fact, it can be.
The animal protein debate. To my meat-eating friends – it is not my intent to be offensive in this post when I talk negatively about animal protein.
This is part of one of many studies that sums things up pretty well:
“When we eat beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or other foods from animals, our bodies take in proteins that may be rich in sulfur. That’s unlike the proteins in plant foods–fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, or beans. As we digest animal proteins, the sulfur in them forms acid. A slight, temporary acid overload called acidosis may result.”
“To regain our natural balance of acidity to alkalinity, or pH, in the bloodstream, our body’s must buffer the influx of acid. One possible buffer is calcium phosphate, which the body can borrow from our bones–the bodies main storage depot for this essential mineral.”
“Though calcium phosphate is an effective buffer and neutralizer, taking it from bones might increase our risk of osteoporosis. This unhealthy increase in the porosity of bones, and resultant thinning, leaves those afflicted with the disease especially vulnerable to fractures of the spine, hips, and wrists.” [Boning Up on Osteoporosis, Agricultural Research Magazine ,March 2003]
In other words, while breaking down animal protein, an acidic environment is created which must then be neutralized by the body. The best and most abundant alkaline mineral in the body is calcium. This goes for meat as well as dairy. In fact, countries with the highest consumption of dairy have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. Dairy milk might contain a lot of calcium, but its absorption is minimal since the mineral is used to neutralize an acidic environment. In some poorer regions of Africa where calcium intake is as low as 300 mg. (the FDA recommends average of 1000 mg. for an adult), people have virtually no osteoporosis. Plants such as green leafy vegetables, almonds, tofu, figs, and white beans have enough calcium to build our bones. Fun fact: notice that the biggest animals in the world are herbivores: elephants, giraffes, rhinos, whales and our vegan cousins, the gorillas.
There are many studies that directly link the consumption of animal products and illnesses such as cancers of the breast, prostate, and large intestine, diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, degenerative brain disease, and macular degeneration.
Yes. This is what scientific studies show. A 20-year study called “The China Study” and a book by Dr. Esselstyn “Reversing and Preventing Heart disease” are my top books for those concerned with their long-term health.
“When Campbell and his colleagues looked at the connection between animal protein and late cancer, they discovered they were able to trigger and then shut down the
formation of cancerous tumors by adjusting the amount of animal protein. In the study, the lab animals were expected to be at the end of their lives within 100 weeks. All 58 animals with diets consisting of 20 percent proteins were dead at the (Table source: The China Study)
end of the 100-week period. All 60 at the 5 percent level of protein were living after the 100 weeks. Protein from soy and wheat sources did not produce the same results, even at the higher levels, Campbell said.” (full article can be found HERE.)
Because of the limitations of this post I am positing a VIDEO of Dr. Campbell explaining in more depth the connection between animal protein and cancer.
There are countless books and studies focusing on health discussing the powerful effect plants have on our health. You receive all the nutrients your body needs to function properly without the cholesterol, saturated fat, and animal protein. With the exception of the debatable plant sources of vitamin B12, plants provide all that we need to be healthy and vibrant. (By the way, 39% of Americans are deficient in B12, even though the US has one of the highest consumption of animal protein. Vegans are not the only group that can potentially be deficient in this nutrient).
Many vegetarians focus solely or partially on the ethical issues of eating animals. We are all familiar with the angry vegetarians pushing their views onto us, and that can be rather annoying at times. But on the other hand they have a point. Billions of animals suffer yearly before they end up on our plates. Disease, lack of room to walk or spread wings, beatings, being alive while having their feathers plucked or having their throats slit, removing calves from their mothers right after birth, you get the idea. I don’t have to explain. Anyone who wants to look into this can go on youtube and find what goes on in thousands of slaughterhouses around the country. Animal welfare may not be your priority, but besides the suffering there’s another issue that comes as a result of this treatment. When animals are living in dirty, disease growing, overpopulated environment, the quality of the product is affected. Specifically, animals are fed hormones (to grow faster, to be slaughtered sooner and to make room for another animal), and antibiotics to heal their disease, and lastly, when an animal is stressed and terrified during its life and at the time of its death, it releases dangerous hormones and toxins that end up in the meat. If you eat meat, try to buy local, from a farmer you know or from an organic and humane source.
How can reducing or removing meat from my diet possibly help the environment?
“According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.”
“Many leading environmental organizations, including the National Audubon Society, the Worldwatch Institute, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and even Al Gore’s Live Earth—have recognized that raising animals for food damages the environment more than just about anything else that we do. Whether it’s the overuse of resources, global warming, massive water or air pollution, or soil erosion, raising animals for food is wreaking havoc on the Earth.” [peta.org]
This chart summarizes this topic quite well (From huffingtonpost.com):
It’s important to note that fruits and vegetables will have the least negative impact on the environment. For example, when you grow apples, peaches, and other fruit growing trees, the tree not only provides food but also purifies the air. The more (fruit) trees there are, the better our planet will be. Here’s a great article by TIMES Health talking about our diet and the environment.
Meat production is a complicated system that when abused is detrimental to our planet. A Wikipedia article on this topic states “The environmental impact of meat production includes pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land. According to a 2006 report by the Livestock, Environment And Development Initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contribute on a “massive scale” to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. The initiative concluded that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.””
One and one-half acres of rainforest are lost every second with tragic consequences for both developing and industrial countries. Experts estimate that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation. That equates to 50,000 species a year.
Another fact: if the US continues to clear American forests to raise cattle at the present rate, in 50 years there will be none left.
Fish, when it comes to environmental impact, is in the same boat (no pun intended) as meat. Some of us know that if we don’t stop commercial fishing our oceans will be completely depleted of life in about 50 years. I don’t know about you but that’s scary to me! Here are some facts about farm raised fish. One would think that eating farm-raised fish is better than consuming wild-caught fish. Yes and no. Fish farms are often not sustainable organisations, meaning that the massive farming in one area can lead to unnatural destruction of the local environment (plants and animals are affected and often become extinct). Another issue is literally fishing for food for the farmed fish. Nets the size of a football field are spread across the oceans in order to catch the food for the farmed fish. However, nets make no distinction. Along the way other species are caught and often die in the process (turtles, dolphins, stingrays, and other fish). By the way, fish has not been exclusively shown to reduce chances of hearth diseases. It still falls under the “animal protein” label contributing to the previously mentioned diseases. If you’re concerned about Omega 3’s (the industry wants you to believe that fish oil is the only source of omega-3) purchase some ground flax seeds, hemp oil, walnuts or green leafy vegetables. Those will get you covered, without any of the cholesterol, acidosis, mercury and other heavy metals found in fish.
It might not be obvious as to how eating more plants can decrease world hunger, but it can. This fact image will tell you how:
A bit cheesy, maybe, but keep an open mind.
70 percent of freshwater consumption and 38 percent of total land use are for agricultural production. Additionally, 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases come from agricultural production. How many more people could we feed if we reclaimed that water and land to grow food that people could eat directly? If Americans reduced their meat consumption by 10% it would free 12,000,000 tons of grain – enough to feed 60,000,000 people (the population of Great Britain).
There is more than enough food in the world to feed the entire human population. Pretty simple! Even if most of us just replace a few meat dishes a week with plant-based meals we could make a huge difference.
This section was not mentioned in the beginning. Let’s say it’s a bonus paragraph, a completely personal one that you may or may not be interested in. For me, researching and experimenting is an important driving force in the things I do in life. I pretty much do everything for a reason. When it comes to being vegan, there’s naturally a reason then. The already mentioned issues such as health (my #1 reason), the environment and ethics all play a role in my decision. But there’s another.
You see, I don’t have sharp canine teeth, claws, sharp beaks and I don’t salivate to the sight of bloody meat. I don’t like the look, let alone the taste, of raw intestines like all carnivores do. I don’t have night vision (most carnivores do) and if I wanted to eat meat I’d have to season it and cook it over a roaring fire for it to be tasty and digestible. That seems a bit unnatural to me. Another thing that seems very unnatural to me is drinking milk that’s made for a baby cow (or goat, or sheep) that’s supposed to grow into a 600-1000 pound animal. No animal in the wild drinks milk after they wean off from their mother. Mammals do not need milk from their mother past that period, and they eat other foods to sustain themselves. Besides, why should I filter my nutrients through an animal if I can eat the foods straight from the earth.
The length of our intestines is about 12 times our body length whereas carnivores’ intestines are about 3 times their body length. Herbivores’ digestive tracks are long in order to separate and break down the fibre-rich foods and to have enough time to absorb nutrients. Carnivore intestines are short to pass flesh through the body fast so that the meat does not rot and break down inside the body. Carnivores’ stomachs are also very acidic to help them digest flesh, bones, etc. (remember animal protein consumption creates acidosis in the human body in order to break down animal flesh). Human stomachs are alkaline, with enzymes that help to break down plants, not animal products. Also, our jaws move side to side (grinding motion) for breaking down plants and carnivores have large mouths and are able to rip meat with their teeth and swallow it whole. For more carnivore/herbivore facts click here.
This was my take on the most important and influential aspects of plant-based diets. There is much more extensive information out there that will explain and broaden the issues mentioned here as well as other important ones.
I’d like to say that most if not all of what I mentioned in this post is backed up by scientific evidence (even if authors and sources are not listed).
Lastly, here are a few resources I’d like to recommend to anyone interested in looking into these issues further:
Books: The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Diet for a New America by Dr. John Robbins, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price, A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and the Cure of Advanced Cancer by Dr. Max Gerson, Healing the Gerson Way by Charlotte Gerson, Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes without Drugs by Dr. Neal Barnard, Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness by Robert Cheeke.
Helpful websites and recipe sources:
Thanks for reading and please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts and post them in the comments below. I wish you all a happy and healthy week!