The first of January marked the start of Veganuary. It is a non-profit organization that encourages people to become vegan for the first thirty-one days of the year - and it is very successful. Over one million people worldwide have been participating since 2014 . As veganism’s popularity is rapidly growing, this article offers insights into some of the complex questions concerning meat consumption.
Will Eating Less Meat Make You Healthier?
Authors of observational studies noticed a simultaneous rise in heart disease and meat consumption. Unfortunately, mainstream media and the public have mistaken this for evidence that meat is unhealthy.
The real deal is this: up to this day, not one single study could prove that unprocessed meat is single-handedly detrimental to our health. Instead, data showed that people who ate the most meat had a higher body mass index (BMI), were more likely to be smokers, and generally followed an unhealthy diet. All these factors are likely more problematic than the consumption of unprocessed red meat . Hill et al. showed how, compared to a plant-based diet, red meat didn’t show any adverse effects on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk if it is part of an otherwise healthy diet .
On the contrary, red meat is a highly nutrient-dense food. It is a great source for protein, unsaturated fats such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), vitamin B12, zinc, iron, creatine, or carnitine. All of which are lacking considerably in a vegan diet, if not supplemented and planned correctly .
Will Eating Less Help The Environment?
A life-cycle analysis, which includes indirect and direct emissions from livestock (from farm to fork), estimates a 14.5% share of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates the direct GHG emissions from livestock to be around 5%, which mainly consists of ruminant enteric fermentation and manure management .
Although the energy and transport sector remains the elephant in the room by being responsible for over 75% of GHG emissions, a lot of public attention focuses on animal protein not being worth its high environmental cost . By focusing mainly on the bad side of meat, it is easy to forget the absolute quintessential nutrients meat equips us with such as bioavailable protein.
With 100 grams of meat (for example a lean beef steak), the body processes 30 grams of protein (185kcal). You would need to consume around 400 grams of tofu (300 kcal), 150 grams of almonds (870kcal), or 300 grams of oatmeal (200 kcal) to obtain 30 grams of protein from plants. Keep in mind that plant protein is not complete. You would need to eat and plant even more legumes and grains to provide all essential building blocks to our bodies.
Does Refraining From Eating Meat Make Me A Better Human?
Undoubted, denying animals sunlight, grasslands, movement, and establishment of group dynamics is unethical.
However, does a meat-free diet and pushing tax on meat a long-term solution? Animal rights activists have argued to make eating meat illegal. Is this a fair and reasonable answer to the problem, considering we have been living with, caring for, feeding, hunting, and eating animals for hundreds of thousands of years? Is this another step towards dividing the human species from nature?
Plant agriculture comes at the cost of animal deaths, as well. The number is not well established because animals dying in the field caused by ploughing, tilling, harvesting, use of combines, tractors, pesticides, fertilizers are not taken into consideration. Nor are the poisoned fish or bird’s nests from the aforementioned chemicals, as well as the dying insects and amphibians.
To be able to produce a chickpea, zucchini, or lettuce en masse, the ecosystem is harshly intervened and consequently, kills animals unintendedly and loses biodiversity .
What Should I Know?
There are better options - the agricultural methods, legislations, and regulations are far from perfect, but they are heading in the right direction. Farmers are starting to apply regenerative agriculture, which helps not only to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) back into the soil, but can also result in net negative carbon dioxide emissions.
Additionally, animal welfare is prioritized, water and biodiversity are conserved, and rural employment and income are generated . Many pesticides and fertilizers that are known to be harmful are already banned in several countries .
Unequivocally, a plant-based diet has many health benefits over a typical western diet. However, you don’t need to eat less meat to have a healthier lifestyle. Meat and vegetables/plants work synergistically. Meat contains a great source of bioavailable protein, zinc, vitamin B12, and iron whereas vegetables provide vitamin C, magnesium, potassium and phytochemicals .
Advice For Plant-based Fans and Meat-lovers
Choose lean meat (such as ground beef or lamb, steak or chicken breast) as it is a vital source for macro/micronutrient and other substances (for example CoQ10, glutathione, taurine, creatine, or carnosine), which are very important for the immune system .
If it fits your budget, opt for grass-fed and/or organic meat. Although current analyses of grass-fed beef samples vary in nutritional composition , the applied agricultural methods rank number one as ways to sequester carbon .
When choosing processed meat (for example sausage or bacon), try to consume with some vegetables. Maximova et al. showed that the co-consumption of non-starchy vegetables and fruits can mitigate the potential carcinogenic effects of processed meat .
If you choose to remain on a plant-based approach, ensure you are paying attention to nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and zinc. The British Dietetic Association recommends choosing fortified dairy alternatives, lichen-derived vitamin D3, and consider vitamin B12 supplementation .
Following a plant-based dietary intake, keep in mind that some nutrients from plants are not as readily available compared with animal products. You can facilitate the absorption of certain nutrients by soaking and rinsing beans (to increase zinc absorption) and eating vitamin C-rich foods (such as peppers, parsley, or lemons) with nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables to increase iron absorption .
This article was written by Dejana Simic BSc and edited by Mei Wan FdSc, BSc (Hons), RD, MBDA, an HCPC Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist.
Dejana obtained a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences at The University of Vienna and is part of Mei Wan's Nutrition and Health Writer Volunteer Team.
Contact Dejana on Instagram @coachdejana.
Check out Dejana's article on type 2 diabetes and low carbohydrate diets.
Are you struggling to lose weight or concerned about plant-based/vegan dietary options? Book a free 15-minute discovery call with Mei today to find out how she can help!
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