The battlefield is silent. Then, a rumble felt through the ground steadily increases as the two contending groups reach their forming points. At the tops of each of the opposing, grassy hills joined only by the misty, fog-covered valley below, you can see, even at a distance, their determined scowls as they size up their foes. On one side, the meat eaters, reeking of bacon fat, heavily clad in fur-lined, leather coats and alligator boots. On the other side stand the vegetarians, crumbs of falafel and tofu still clinging to their hemp-woven tunics as they down preparatory shots of wheatgrass in anticipation of the battle to come. Suddenly, both sides take off quickly towards each other, spilling down the hills and into the valley, eyes blazing, battle cries piercing the air as the war begins. Who will win? The savage, dolphin unfriendly, protein-packed meat eaters? The tree hugging, soy loving vegetarians?
Unfortunately, this is the image that often comes to mind when considering opposing views of vegetarians and those who are “pro meat”. People are often categorized by what they eat, and what they believe others should be eating. A fierce battle of sorts ensues between hardcore vegans and the American love of meat and animal products. However, vegetarianism being labeled as a fanatic diet is a big misconception. But who is right? Should we eat meat? Is a vegetable-based diet best? Is it possible to never eat meat and yet still meet all of one’s dietary needs?
Western diets have been known to be high in refined grains, sweets, red meat, and other highly processed foods. In addition, Americans are battling obesity more than ever before, which can easily be seen via magazine articles, news reports, and the unceasing barrage of advertisements touting diet foods, diet pills, and weight loss programs for the masses. Health concerns are growing as cancer and other diseases wreak havoc on the population and studies are conducted to find ways to combat these issues. In addition, as thousands of livestock farms across the country pollute the groundwater from animal waste and pump out methane gas contributing to global warming, some claim that a meat-loving lifestyle is dealing a detrimental blow to the environment. However, the prescription for many of these issues could be as simple as reevaluating what’s on your breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate.
Diet has a profound impact on the body—who hasn’t felt the heavy, bloating effects of a large steak dinner or the cool, refreshing satisfaction after downing a fresh, fruit smoothie? Again, the question is raised—What should we eat? After much study, it can be said that a vegetarian lifestyle improves health, provides all the essential nutrients the body needs, and puts less strain on the environment. Many may shun the idea of tossing aside a cheeseburger for the veggie variety, but when personal health and the environment are at stake…it’s worth it to take a closer look at the facts and seriously consider making the important choice to improve one’s diet in order to improve their quality of life.
Vegetarian diets can protect against cancer, lower the chances for obesity, and improve overall health. Cancer studies as related to food provide compelling evidence in favor of vegetable-based diets. Dietary fiber and micronutrients found in various vegetables, fruits and grains are key in protecting against cancers such as those of the esophagus, mouth, pharynx, larynx, colon, ovaries, stomach, lungs, pancreas, and liver, just to name a few (Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective 73, 114, 128). In fact, The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund agree that “most diets that are protective against cancer are plant based” and that vegetarians maintain a low risk for cancer because they avoid high risk factors, such as consuming animal fat (that can cause colorectal, prostate, bladder and lung cancers) (134, 140, 380, 382; Wolfe 120).
In regards to obesity, the low-calorie, nutrient-dense nature of vegetarian diets can help trim down the waistline and keep off the pounds. While exercise is an important factor in preventing weight gain, diet is another very important factor, as well. Diets high in animal fats are also very rich in calories, and if the energy they provide isn’t expended, the excess of calories can result in storage of fat within the body (Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective 382). Also, meats and animal products contain saturated fats that cause the liver to produce cholesterol, most notably, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol is unique in that it is never found in fruits or vegetables (Duyff 55). On the other hand, body mass index is “typically less” among vegetarians (499). So, if you’re watching your weight, adopting a healthy, vegetarian lifestyle can help to shed the pounds and tame cholesterol levels.
Some other healthful benefits can result from trading in that meat for potatoes. Vegetarians benefit from having less of a chance of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, strokes, kidney stones, ulcers, gallstones, asthma, constipation, and even macular degeneration (Duyff 498, 504, Healey 7). Also, reducing meat intake gives the digestive system, kidneys and circulatory system a break, since meat takes longer to digest and can even ferment while it makes it’s way through the body, causing gas and affecting absorption of nutrients (Wolfe 15, 75). In addition, eating meat can cause the body to build up uric acid, leading to gout and other health concerns (75). Lastly, the chances of food poisoning and parasites decreases when you adopt a primarily plant based diet, which is something everyone can certainly appreciate (97).
Another aspect that should be considered when weighing the benefits of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is nutrition. The American Institute of Cancer Research recognizes that vegetables, nuts, and fruits, while low in energy density on average, are jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, fiber, unsaturated fatty acids, and phytochemicals, all of which help to prevent cellular damage and combat the health issues mentioned previously (75, 78, 79, 192). A vegetarian diet can also provide the body with fuel it needs to strengthen the immune system and slow the aging process (Healey 7). While meat provides protein, B vitamins, and iron, it simply cannot match up to the plethora of healthy nutrients that veggies provide.
Farming meat is a costly process. To be more precise, the environment pays dearly for the damage done to it by the maintenance and slaughtering of livestock. Besides using large amounts of energy for transport of feed and livestock, operation of facilities for packaging and refrigeration, and waste removal, meat production also uses 87% of all the freshwater consumed throughout the world, and requires vast amounts of grain for feed, with over three quarters of agricultural land used for grazing or feed production (Healey 3, 4, 11). Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane emission linked to this production also contributes to global warming (4). Not only do vast amounts of land get cleared for grazing and feed production, but these habitats are also destroyed in the process, as topsoil is eroded and contaminated with waste, native plant and animal life are cleared away, and wastewater runoff pollutes waterways and ground water (4, 8). In comparison, a vegetarian diet uses less land and water for food production, creates less water pollution from agricultural waste, and, if farmed responsibly, poses less of a threat of habitat destruction, species extinction, and overall environmental impact. It is also important to note that cattle, pigs, and other livestock are often raised in cramped, unnatural, deplorable conditions, with little exercise or sunshine, and usually treated with growth hormones and antibiotics (Wolfe 335). As this information is considered, it can be said that a vegetarian lifestyle isn’t just good for the body, it is good for the planet, as well.
Despite all the benefits to be gained from adopting a vegetarian diet, there are still critics out there who bring up some valid concerns and questions. For instance, why would we have canine teeth if we weren’t meant to eat meat? First off, our teeth are more effective for chewing and grinding vegetation than for tearing through flesh (Lierre 140). Also, though it is generally assumed that humans evolved as omnivores, eating a mixture of both plant and animal foods, the human digestive tract tells a different story, as Justin Healey noted:
Our digestive system resembles that of herbivores and frugivores (fruit eaters). It consists of a very long intestine allowing slow digestion of nutrients. By contrast, carnivores have a short digestive tract designed so that meat can quickly pass through the body before it putrefies and becomes toxic. To compensate…carnivores have a stomach acid concentration ten times greater than that of vegetarian mammals (including humans) to enable them to quickly digest meat. (5)
Another question posed by those doubtful of vegetarianism is whether there is a risk of nutritional deficiencies in avoiding animal products. Where can one get protein? Well, look no further than legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Amino acids? Again, legumes, nuts and seeds provide those, too. Fatty acids? Try some walnuts or flaxseeds. Vitamin D? Fortified juices and cereals can provide that, as can sunshine, since the body produces vitamin D with just twenty to forty minutes of recommended sunshine exposure three times a week (Duyff 503). Calcium can be found in sesame seeds, tofu, soy, and green vegetables, zinc in whole grains, and iron within dark leafy greens, tempeh, dried fruits, and fortified grains (Healey 5; Duyff 504). B12 vitamins, primarily found in animal products such as dairy and eggs, can be added to the diet through supplements or fortified food products (502). By staying informed and incorporating variety into meals, it is easy to ensure that all dietary needs are properly met on a plant-based diet alone.
One may think, “This vegetarianism thing is all fine and well, but isn’t it difficult to maintain? Choices can be limited and even then, there are some unhealthy meat-free dishes out there too, like French fries!” There are all sorts of vegetarian diets. Lacto-vegetarians include dairy in their diet, ovo-vegetarians include eggs, lacto-ovo-vegetarians indulge in both, pesca-vegetarians include fish and other seafood, while vegans eat no animal products whatsoever. No matter what kind of vegetarian path one chooses, choices are not as limited as one might assume at first glance. Many restaurants have healthy vegetarian options. A sure way to save some money while maintaining a veggie-based diet would be to prepare to-go meals at home for work or school. TV, the Internet, as well as various food magazines usually make the search for healthy, tasty vegetarian recipes very simple, as well. While followers of any diet faces the challenge of avoiding unhealthy options such as deep-fried foods and other high calorie dishes, by making smart choices and carefully reading food labels, this challenge can be overcome quite easily.
So, getting back to the proverbial battlefield…who will be the victor in the bitter war between proponents of lean veggies and those of protein-packed meats? The world may never know. It is possible that vegetarians and meat lovers may never see eye to eye on the diet related issues of health and environmental impact. Meanwhile, there are those who walk the line, those that pick and choose which animal products they are willing to consume and are therefore dubbed “semi-vegetarians”. Despite these polar opposites and grey-area “line walkers”, it is important for each and every person to choose for themselves based on facts, on personal preference, and with full knowledge of their decision and its implications. As with all diets, it is important to consult a physician, include a balanced variety of foods, and make smart choices when making the important life decision to change your eating habits and lifestyle.
After evaluating several reputable sources, it does seem as though a primarily plant based diet can reduce the risk of cancer, improve overall health, and have a less damaging impact on the environment. By becoming a vegetarian–indeed, even by simply shifting the plate proportions to include a majority of vegetables and less meat products—there is no doubt that positive outcomes will occur from the increase in nutrients, decrease in calories and fats, and shift to more sustainable eating that results from making such a change. With all that is to be gained from following a vegetarian diet plan, it is definitely worth considering…for the individual, for the family, and for the planet, as well.
American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Second Expert Report 2007. Available at http://www.dietandcancerreport.org. Accessed on 25 Sept. 2013.
Duyff, Roberta Larson, and Association American Dietetic. The American Dietetic Association Complete Food And Nutrition Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 25 Sept. 2013.
Healey, Justin, ed. Issues in Society: Vegetarianism [e-book]. Vol. 339. Thirroul, N.S.W.: Spinney Press, 2004. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. Accessed 25 Sept. 2013.
Lierre, Keith. Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. Crescent City, CA: Flashpoint Press, 2009. APUS Library Collection. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.
Wolfe, Frankie Avalon. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Being Vegetarian. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2000. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 25 Sept. 2013.