The vegan vs meat diet debate remains a contentious issue, with strong opinions from both sides. On the one hand, a vegan diet forgoes the use of any animal products or byproducts, which some people believe to be an ethical decision that could lessen the environmental effects of intensive animal agriculture. On the other hand, proponents of meat diets point out that, when eaten in moderation, meat can improve health and supply necessary nutrients.
Regardless of your position on the matter, you should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy before making any dietary adjustments. In this article, we’ll go into great detail regarding the vegan and meat diets so you can decide which is best for your lifestyle and health.
Which Is Healthier And Better: The Vegan VS Meat Diet Debate
Today’s society is rife with heated conversations between meat eaters and vegans. Vegans contend that meat leads to environmental degradation, animal abuse, and cancer. However, many who don’t consume protein from meat products contend that doing so results in nutritional deficits and weight gain.
Both parties think that their approach is better and healthier. What does science, however, say? And how can we make informed decisions about our diets? We will explore this topic in depth, providing surprising insights and helping you navigate the complexities of dietary preferences.
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Defining the Terms: Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant-Based, Carnivore, and Omnivore Diets
With so many different diets out there, it can be difficult to understand the differences between them. To make things easier, let’s take a look at five of the most popular ones: vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, carnivore, and omnivore diets.
Let’s first define the numerous dietary concepts we’ll be using in this discussion:
1. Plant-based diet: While some define it as strictly consuming plants, our definition encompasses a broader range. A plant-based diet primarily consists of vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In other words, if you consume mostly plants but include some animal-based protein, you can still be considered a plant-based eater.
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2. Whole-food plant-based diet: This type of plant-based diet emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods.
3. Fully plant-based/plant-only diet: These eating patterns exclude all animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Some fully plant-based eaters avoid all animal byproducts, including honey.
4. Vegan diet: A strict, fully plant-based diet that often extends beyond food choices to broader lifestyle choices such as avoiding fur or leather. Vegans strive to minimize harm or suffering to animals.
5. Vegetarian diet: This term serves as an umbrella, encompassing plant-only diets (fully plant-based or vegan) as well as several other plant-based eating patterns:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume dairy and eggs.
- Pesco-pollo vegetarians eat fish, shellfish, and chicken.
- Pescatarians eat fish and shellfish.
- Flexitarians eat mostly plant foods but occasionally include small servings of meat. Flexitarians aim to reduce meat consumption without eliminating it entirely.
6. Omnivore: Someone who consumes a combination of animal and plant-based foods.
7. Carnivore: Someone who eats only meat. Often these people, who call their diet the Carnivore Diet, do eat very small amounts of other foods, such as butter, oils, nuts etc. But their primary source of nutrition is meat.
Now that we have clarified these terms, let’s delve into the controversy surrounding these dietary choices.
The Health Benefits of Vegetarian and Omnivore Diets
Many people believe that plant-only diets offer significant benefits, particularly in reducing the risk of diseases. Several studies support this notion.
For instance, a study conducted in Belgium surveyed nearly 1,500 individuals following different diets, including vegans, vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, pescatarians, and omnivores. The study found that fully plant-based eaters scored the highest on the Healthy Eating Index, a measure of dietary quality. In contrast, omnivores scored the lowest and had a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese.
Other research has also linked vegetarian diets with better health indicators, including blood pressure and waist circumference.
Overall Dietary Patterns Matter More
However, it’s important to note that overall dietary patterns matter more than any specific food choice. Consuming a diet rich in minimally processed whole foods, fruits and vegetables, protein sources (plant or animal-based), whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats contributes to overall health. Shockingly, more than 90% of people do not consume enough fruits and vegetables daily. Additionally, ultra-processed foods make up almost 60% of all calories consumed in the United States.
Fully plant-based eaters score higher on the Healthy Eating Index not solely because they avoid meat but rather because they consume more minimally processed whole plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Their conscious efforts towards their food intake and healthier choices may stem from their adherence to a plant-based diet. Interestingly, plant-based eaters also tend to prioritize sleep and engage in less sedentary behavior, which can further boost overall health.
In contrast, meat eaters score lower on the Healthy Eating Index not because they eat meat but because they tend to consume fewer whole foods such as fish, seafood, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. They tend to consume higher amounts of refined grains and sodium, which are characteristic of highly processed foods. Moreover, meat eaters tend to have higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption compared to plant-based eaters.
Therefore, it is important to emphasize that meat itself may not be the problem, but rather a diet consisting predominantly of highly processed foods and lacking in whole, plant-based foods. Ultimately, the key to a healthy diet lies in striking a balance and incorporating whole, minimally processed foods into one’s eating pattern, regardless of whether it includes meat or not.
Does Meat Cause Cancer?
Recent studies have suggested that high consumption of red and processed meats may increase the risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. This has been an important factor in the debate on the benefits of a vegan vs meat diet, with many proponents highlighting the health implications of long-term consumption of animal products as one reason to opt for a plant-based diet. However, it is important to note that while there are risks associated with a high consumption of red and processed meats, this does not necessarily mean all forms of meat should be avoided altogether.
Processed meat, including lunch meat, canned meat, and jerky, as well as heavily grilled, charred, or blackened red meat, can introduce potentially carcinogenic compounds to the body.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, conducted a comprehensive review of over 800 studies. They concluded that each daily portion of 50 grams of processed meat, roughly equivalent to one hotdog or six slices of cooked bacon, increases the risk of colon cancer by a surprising 18%. In addition, red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic,” while processed red meat was classified as “carcinogenic,” placing it in the same category as smoking and alcohol.
However, the research on this topic is not definitive. A consortium called Nutritional Recommendations, composed of 14 researchers across seven countries, published five research reviews based on 61 population studies and several randomized trials. Their findings indicated that reducing red meat intake had only a slight benefit, resulting in only seven fewer deaths per 1,000 people for red meat eaters and eight fewer deaths per 1,000 people for processed meat.
The Difference Between Relative Risk And Absolute Risk
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the IARC categorizes processed meat in the same group as cigarettes. This is due to the common carcinogens found in both. However, the magnitude of the increased risk is not comparable. To understand this, we need to differentiate between “relative risk” and “absolute risk.”
- Relative risk refers to the likelihood of an event happening when a new variable is added to a group (such as red meat). In contrast to a group without such a variable, this is stated. Colon cancer risk has reportedly increased by roughly 18%. That is for every 50 grams of processed red meat taken daily, according to studies.
- Absolute risk, on the other hand, represents the total risk of developing a problem (such as cancer) over time. The absolute risk of developing colon cancer is approximately 5% over a lifetime. Consuming 50 grams of processed red meat daily would raise this absolute risk to 6%, which is a 1% increase.
By comparison, smoking doubles the risk of dying within the next 10 years. Smoking is responsible for 30% of all cancer deaths, surpassing alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined. The 1% increase in lifetime risk from consuming a daily hotdog is significantly lower than the impact of smoking.
Overall, the health risks associated with red and processed meat depend on various factors, including lifestyle habits, exercise, sleep, stress, and overall dietary patterns. Getting sufficient sleep, exercising regularly, not smoking, and consuming a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods can mitigate these risks.
Is Meat Better For The Planet?
The environmental impact of consuming protein from animal meat on the planet is undeniable and generally higher compared to obtaining it directly from plants. For instance, animal agriculture contributes significantly to climate change due to its intensive water and energy use as well as its production of greenhouse gases. This reality has a direct effect on the vegan vs meat diet debate, making a plant-based lifestyle increasingly attractive from an eco-conscious standpoint.
Meat, milk, or eggs are often only produced from around 10% of the food that farm animals eat. Additionally, animal agriculture contributes to waste production and the release of methane gas, both of which contribute to climate change. Cattle alone account for approximately 70% of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, while all plants combined contribute only 4%.
However, this does not mean that one must completely eliminate meat to save the planet. There are alternative strategies to reduce the environmental impact without giving up meat entirely. In a 2019 study, academics from Johns Hopkins and other universities analyzed nine eating habits. Habits that range from wholly plant-based to omnivorous. According to the study, lacto-ovo vegetarianism had less of an effect on the environment than consuming meat only once a day. Additionally, a diet that includes small, lower-level animals like fish has a similar effect on the environment as one that is exclusively plant-based.
Therefore, individuals who prioritize reducing their environmental impact do not necessarily have to adopt a fully plant-based diet. They can achieve significant reductions by simply reducing their meat intake. Or incorporating sources of protein lower on the food chain.
Reducing Environmental Impact: 5 Strategies
To reduce the environmental impact of one’s diet, several strategies can be employed:
- Limit meat intake: Consider capping meat consumption at 1 to 3 ounces per day. Keeping overall animal product intake below 10% of total calories. Replacing meat with protein powder, legumes, tubers, roots, whole grains, mushrooms, bivalves, and seeds provides the most environmental benefit.
- Choose sustainably raised meat: Opt for grass-fed cattle over feedlot animals that are often fed heavily fertilized monocrops. Grazing cattle offer a more sustainable option, especially when sourced locally.
- Eat more meals at home: Meals created from scratch generate less packing waste. They produce less food waste than meals that have been cooked commercially.
- Purchase locally grown foods: Buying locally reduces transportation miles. Locally grown crops are often smaller, more diversified, and produce fewer emissions.
- Minimize food waste: Food waste in landfills generates greenhouse gases. By reducing food waste, individuals can contribute to a significant reduction in environmental impact.
In the end, individuals have the choice to select the diet that is most effective for them. Without regard to the debate between those who follow the lifestyle of a vegan vs meat diet. All diets have their pros and cons. Some may feel best with high-protein meals that include whole-food sides. Plant-eaters often thrive on fruits and vegetables during the week while adding some protein options on Saturday and Sunday. Let your “gut feelings” be your guide. And be sure to include your medical caregiver when deciding on your optimal plan.