I grew up in the Midwest with plenty of dairy and meat in my diet. We ate ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and hot dishes at dinner containing tuna or ground beef and often Velveeta cheese. Drinking milk was required at every meal. Pepperoni was a critical pizza ingredient and a burger from a fast food restaurant was an exciting treat. I knew these foods came from animals, but as a kid, I didn’t overthink it. I ate what I was fed and what I thought tasted good.
As I got a bit older, I became an animal lover. I was perhaps a little awkwardly obsessed with cats and ended up with a subscription to a magazine on the subject. This subscription resulted in my being added to mailing lists from many animal welfare organizations, and I started to get their mailings. As a 10 or 11 year old, I didn’t get much mail, so I would pour over brochures describing in great detail the suffering imposed on animals in the food industry, the cosmetics industry, and more. I started to feel a little uncomfortable about eating meat, but I lived at home and didn’t know any vegetarians.
Shortly before moving away to go to college, I decided I would become vegetarian at that point. With a new environment and more choices in my own control, it seemed the perfect opportunity to re-invent my eating habits. Rarely do such decisions result in a lasting impact, but for me, it did. I had sausage and pepperoni pizza the night before I left for college and have not (intentionally) eaten any meat since. Every vegetarian or vegan probably has their own origin story. Some may have ups and downs, some may involve very different reasons, but generally, becoming plant-based is a conscious choice that goes against the norm, even though more and more people are opting out of animal products these days.
For me, not eating meat was an ethical decision. Some people don’t eat meat because it is against their religious beliefs. I have heard of kids who don’t eat meat because they just don’t like it and refuse to eat it from a very young age. Environmental considerations factor into the decision for people who are concerned with sustainability as well as feeding a growing world population. Methane emissions from livestock make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas production. I remember learning in college that you could feed 10 times as many people if you grew grain for people to eat rather than grain for cows to eat. There are certainly other reasons people may site for going veg, but these are some of the big ones.
And then we get to health.
Are vegetarian (meatless) and vegan (no meat, eggs, dairy) and plant-based diets healthier than diets that include meat? I think it’s pretty safe to say that most vegetarian diets are healthier than the current standard American diet. And although some people still gasp from fear that I am going to waste away when I tell them I don’t eat meat, it’s been very well established that vegetarian diets are healthful. But are they MORE healthful, and if so, why? The answers here are not as clear-cut as one might wish, but I will try to provide some insight from the point of view of a dietitian/nutritionist.
There have been a bunch of long-term studies done tracking lifestyle habits and health outcomes of individuals. One common finding is that people who eat vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be leaner and have a lower incidence of certain diseases. This finding does require some interpretation. When looking at large studies, things tend to get averaged out, which is really good in a study, because it means that one extreme result will not throw everything off. But it also means, that not everyone in a study looks like the average study result. Some vegans may fare very poorly, and some meat eaters might be extremely healthy, but ON AVERAGE, those that skip the meat do better.
The “standard American diet”, which includes fatty meats and added fats along with refined carbohydrates and excess sodium while lacking whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, has been blamed for the obesity epidemic and many lifestyle related diseases. However, other patterns of eating that incorporate foods of animal origin, such as fish, eggs, and lean meats, AND ALSO include nutritious plants and grains may be healthful diets. On the other hand, just because a diet does not contain animal products does not mean that it is healthy. You could subsist on potato chips, Oreos, and Coke and still call yourself a vegan. A low-quality vegetarian or vegan diet made up of mostly processed grains, sugary foods, and refined fats may not be any better than the standard American diet, though most people choosing to avoid animal products have a healthier bent. It is much harder to answer the question as to whether a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet is better than a healthy diet that includes some meat.
Which brings us to the Plant-Based Diet.
Strictly speaking, plant-based could just mean any food that is not animal in origin. Yet, the term generally refers to a diet that is BASED on whole foods that come from plants such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (like beans), and whole nuts and seeds. Specific definitions of this concept vary. Some people define a plant-based diet as one that is strictly vegan. Some plant-based purists reject any refined or processed plant-derived foods such as flours or oils. Others are more lenient and allow for small amounts of healthy whole food animal products to be included. Whereas the terms vegetarian and vegan focus on what they don’t include - meat and animal products, the emphasis of plant-based eating is on what it DOES include – lots of plants! In my view, one can call themselves plant BASED, without eliminating anything, if the bulk of the diet is made up of whole plant foods.
Just what is it about plant-based diets that might make them more healthful, preventing disease and perhaps improving longevity? Meat and dairy and eggs do contain saturated fat, which has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. Red meats and processed meats have been shown to contribute to oxidative stress. Eliminating these foods may give one a leg up. But it probably has a lot to do with what these diets DO include, rather than simply what they don’t. If one is not eating animal products, but still needs to eat the same number of calories as someone who is, they’ll necessarily be eating more plant-based foods in total than a meat-eater. If those foods consist of whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, they will be consuming a lot of fiber and nutrient dense foods providing all essential vitamins and minerals in sufficient quantities. Here are some other fun facts:
So the message is eat more plants!
I did not have to get a Master’s in Nutrition to know that most people don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as they know they should. The reasons are undoubtedly many and varied from dislike to lack of access. Some people believe a plant-based diet is more expensive than an omnivorous one, which may be true if you don’t cook, but whole plant foods are almost always cheaper than meat pound for pound at the grocery store. There’s also the misguided idea that eating organic produce is so important that if you can’t afford organic, you should skip it altogether. You will have to deal with your own demons if you are rationalizing avoiding fruits and vegetables entirely – you know who you are.
But is it important to go full-on plant-based for your health? If your only reason for considering eliminating meat is health, it may be a great decision, but you will get no guarantees. My personal advice (although I’d love it if everyone became a vegetarian) is to exercise moderation when eating meat. I know people don’t like the term “moderation”. It sounds vague and wishy-washy and we want clearer parameters to work with.
I wish the science was clearer here, but it rarely has definitive answers to seemingly simple nutrition questions: If non-meat eaters tend to be healthier than meat-eaters, does that mean I will be healthier if I stop eating meat? Maybe – it depends. What if I only eat meat one time a week – is my risk higher than if I never eat it? I don’t know. Does a plant-based diet need to be perfect to be effective, because if I know I can’t do it perfectly, maybe I shouldn’t even try at all! And that is where we end up if we need all or nothing answers. Moderation actually might be essential, simply because it is sustainable. Moderation is the expression that suggests do the best you can, but cut yourself a little slack.
My name is Lorelei Sturm. Some of you may know me as a yoga instructor with Chicago’s Neighborhood Fitness Centers. I am also a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition. CNF is committed to helping its members lead healthier lives by encouraging wellness and a healthy lifestyle in addition to fitness. So, what burning nutrition questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.
I'm Lorelei the resident dietitian with Chicago’s Neighborhood Fitness Centers. Some of you may know me as a yoga instructor, which I am, but I also have a Master’s degree in Nutrition. CNF is committed to helping its members lead healthier lives by encouraging wellness and a healthy lifestyle in addition to fitness. Let me know if you have any nutrition questions in the comments below.