I’m going to guess that you probably know someone who’s vegetarian, vegan or has been at some point. It might be for their health or weight loss, having heard that they’ll be better on a ‘traditional’ plant-based diet. Or they might be conscious of protecting their environment, aware that farming animals requires more resources than plants. Perhaps it’s a concern for animal wellbeing, recognition of excessive antibiotic or hormone use in livestock, or a religious conviction.
Maybe you are that person, or are wondering if you should cut out meat. What are the health effects and the environmental impact, and what should you be wary of?
There are two commonly discussed opinions on this topic. Firstly, whether a vegetarian diet could make you healthier, or second, if you’ll actually end up deficient in all sorts of nutrients and minerals.
To address the first topic, you’ll be healthier if you eat healthier food. No surprises there. A diet of French fries, candy and chocolate cake is still perfectly vegetarian, and most certainly not healthy.
However, many people find when they switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet that they do tend to eat healthier food because they can’t eat some unhealthy foods (such as hamburgers, or many dairy-based foods, cake if it has egg, etc…). They’re far more likely to get to the 5 veg – 2 fruit or more per day and get a higher fibre intake and greater amount of plant-based nutrients. Naturally they’re not going to have the problems associated with overconsumption of red meats, and will tend to have a lower intake of saturated fats (the bad kind) and cholesterol.
However, if you do love bacon and steak, never fear. This is a great example of “everything in moderation”. Eat a balanced diet with your fruit, veg, fibre, nutrients and a bit of meat and dairy and you’ll be fine.
So the bottom line is that eating healthier makes you healthy, and going plant-based helps you do that, then go for it.
But what about nutrient deficiencies? Do vegetarians and vegans get enough protein, iron, calcium and all their vitamins? If they’re sensible about it, then yes. But if you suddenly cut out all your meat and replace it with bread and potato chips to simply fill you up, you won’t be fine.
Instead you should replace your meat protein with legumes such as peas, beans and lentils, or whole grains, nuts or seeds. Iron can again be obtained from alternate, plant-based sources, although it is more difficult for the human body to absorb than animal-sourced iron, so is best consumed along with Vitamin C to maximise uptake. Other important vitamins and minerals that vegetarians and vegans may struggle with include calcium, zinc, Vitamins B12, D and K and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these can be found within a plant-based diet, they just require a conscious and planned effort to eat particular foods in order to maintain health.
Another important note is that while a vegan diet can be perfectly healthy for an adult, in children it is quite different because they require nutrition to grow and develop in different ways to adults. If a child is to begin a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is recommended to see a nutrition specialist to ascertain a healthy way for this to be implanted in a young child.
You’ve probably heard the stats. Anything from halving to slashing your carbon emissions by factors of 10 by switching to a plant-based diet. It’s true that raising animals does use more land resources and result in greater carbon and methane emissions. So eating less meat has the potential to help the environment. However, the impact is not as great as such headlines would have you believe.
Firstly, only 1/5 of our carbon emissions come from the food we eat. The second problem is that often such optimistic reductions are based on entirely vegan diets, avoiding every single animal product altogether, including some things you might not realise are animal-based: certain cosmetics, glues, cleaners, soaps, polishes and more.
These extra uses of animals mean that it is economically viable to farm animals. After all, if plant crops use so much less resources, wouldn’t it be otherwise unsustainable to farm many animals at all? If everyone went vegan, then we’d have to use more resources to produce these same products that we source from animals.
So if you entirely switch your diet over, you’ll probably cut your emissions by 4-5%. It’s not an insignificant number, but also not a definitive reason to do so.
So there’s a brief summary. You could be healthier and help the environment, but even if you’re not keen to take such a big step, then try reducing your meat consumption, keeping in mind that everything can be good in moderation.