The evidence on plant-based diets
Many believe that eating a plant-based diet is healthier and better for the environment. They’re right – but there are some exceptions
In the West, being a vegetarian or vegan is usually seen as a diet choice, while in some parts of the world it is a result of simple poverty: people may be unable to get the nutrients they need from meat or elsewhere. In other cases, the decision not to eat meat may have religious or cultural significance.
It is often said that India is a vegetarian country, but most of the population do in fact eat meat and there is a complex mix of socioeconomic, political, religious and cultural reasons why around a third of them do not. Some claim that abstaining from meat originally became socially acceptable because at times in India’s past it was too scarce or too expensive for many families to afford.
Assuming vegetarians have access to a wide range of other foods, there is little reason to suspect that a diet that without meat or fish should be less nutritious overall, although there are likely to be differences in the exact balance of nutrients. For example, while many people complain that meat-free diets lack iron, research suggests that the risk of iron deficiency is similar across meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans, perhaps because non-meat-eaters consume more fruit and vegetables containing vitamin C, which helps our bodies absorb iron.
Some also question whether it’s possible to be in peak physical condition without eating meat, but some reassurance may come from remembering that Carl Lewis broke the world record for the 100-metre sprint while following a vegan diet.
Lower in saturated fat – but lower in omega-3s too
Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fats, which come from animal products and are associated with higher levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, the type that causes our arteries to get blocked up (see our article ‘Is fat bad?’ for more on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol). On average, vegans also have a lower risk of heart disease due to lower blood pressure.
However, there is one particular type of fatty acid that is good for our health and is difficult to get if you are strictly vegetarian. Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturates – often referred to as ‘fish oils’ – are made by algae and help to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, but humans get most of theirs from the oily fish that feed on these algae.
It could now be possible to engineer plants to produce these oils. Scientists at the Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire, UK, are testing a version of the cabbage family plant Camelina that has been given algal genes to enable it to produce the necessary fatty acids.
Why it’s greener to eat greens
Some people choose to be vegetarian for environmental reasons, as meat has a larger environmental ‘footprint’ than crops. This is related to the greater amount of energy needed to grow fodder for livestock and the amount of harmful emissions produced. By some estimates, livestock account for 15 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.
The authors of one 2015 study calculated that removing meat and fish from the diet of the average Dutch woman would reduce the environmental impact of her diet by 21 per cent and that this impact could be reduced by a further 9 per cent by adopting a healthy vegan diet. Even eating a little bit less meat, rather than becoming completely vegetarian, would have positive environmental consequences.
However, according to a 2016 survey, many people did not believe that reducing meat consumption would have a large impact or thought that it would not be worthwhile unless there was a wider societal change.Lead image:
Moyan Brenn/Flickr CC BY
- Big Think: Vegetarianism as a political and religious tool
- Johnathan Napier: Genetic engineering new sources of omega-3
- Independent: Vegetarianism is India’s curse
- Independent: 5 things that happen when you stop eating meat
- Climate metrics and the carbon footprint of livestock products (2015)
- Public awareness of the environmental impact of food (2016)
- Guardian: Elite athletes who shun meat
- Health effects of vegan diets (2009)