Do your vegetarian friends ever challenge you about the ethics of killing animals for food when you are about to enjoy a really great burger? Many vegetarians assert that it is unethical to kill animals for food. Meat-eaters do not consider their diets to be unethical because meat has been part of the human diet since pre-history. The divergent ethical beliefs of meat-eaters and plant-eaters do not present common ground for the two groups to come to a consensus about whether meat-based or plant-based diets are better for us. However, the scientific study of both dietary options should be the basis by which the two groups come to a common opinion on which is better. There are compelling, scientifically-based reasons why vegetarianism is preferential to a meat-based diet. Despite how really terrific that burger might taste to you, adopting a vegetarian diet should be your goal as a means of protecting your health, conserving planetary resources, and protecting the environment.
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While meat-eaters correctly point out that meat has been a significant part of the human diet for over two and one-half million years (Domínguez-Rodrigo), it is also true that long before meat was put on the menu humans evolved to exist on a vegetarian diet. Even today, humans have the long intestines and short, flat teeth that are compatible with an herbivore’s diet, not the short intestines and sharp teeth needed to eat raw meat (Mills.) Humans can synthesize eleven of the twenty proteins they need to survive; and the remaining nine proteins must come from dietary sources (FDA). If you are a meat-eater you do not have to put much thought into sourcing those nine essential protein types because virtually any meat-based food product contains them all. A vegetarian can obtain all of the essential proteins from plant-based sources, but a little more thought needs to go into meal planning to make sure they are included. Soybeans, quinoa, and buckwheat are sources of complete proteins, which contain all 9 of the essential amino acids that humans can’t synthesize (Kemmerer & Acosta.) Despite the relative ease of eating meat to obtain all the necessary proteins that we need to survive, a vegetarian diet provides options for complete nutrition, including all necessary proteins (Marsh et al.) Considering the relative ease of sourcing food for both kinds of diet, our decision to be meat-eaters or plant-eaters should be made based on other criteria.
The health-related outcomes of each diet present an important criterion for measuring which diet is better for us. Not only does a vegetarian diet provide complete nutrition, it has health benefits over a meat-eating diet. Meat-based diet supporters like to point out that the type of iron found in animal protein is more readily absorbed by the human body than the iron found in plants (NIH.) That is an accurate claim, however, it overlooks that the type of iron found in meats is linked to a higher rate of development of kidney stones (Breslau.) Additionally, the iron compound found in red meat (heme iron) is associated with increased risk of colon cancer (Harvard Health Publishing.) Leafy green vegetables, legumes, including soybeans, quinoa, and buckwheat provide vegetarians with a heme iron source that is not associated with the development of these conditions (Mahan & Raymond.) One area where the meat-eating diet might seem superior is in calcium absorption and bone density. While meat-eaters may have easy-to-absorb calcium available in meat, they use a lot of calcium from their bones neutralizing the acids that are a by-product of metabolizing meat-protein (Lang.) The human body is less efficient at absorbing plant-based calcium, but vegetarians have many choices for obtaining calcium, including kale, collard greens, spinach and tofu; and a study demonstrated that vegetarians bone strength is equal to that of non-vegetarians (Garvan Institute.) Overall, it appears that obtaining the essential nutrients calcium and iron is healthier when obtained through a vegetarian diet.
The health benefits of a vegetarian diet are not limited to iron and calcium. A plant-based diet contributes to a healthier weight and a longer and healthier life. Harvard University scientists determined that eating meat increases the type 2 diabetes risk for women, despite that vegetarians generally eat more carbohydrates than meat-eaters (Garvan Institute.) Another study determined that men have an increased risk of this disease if they eat processed meats (Barnard.) An Oxford University study revealed that a greater percentage of meat-eaters were obese than were vegetarians; with an 8.3% higher body mass index, on average (Spencer.) Yet another medical study established that eating red meat was associated with increased risks of heart disease, as well as death from cancer (Zhong.) Beyond maintaining a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, scientific research has also shown us that maintaining a vegetarian diet for a period of at least 20 years increases life expectancy by over 4 years (Orlich.) Another large study involving over 73 thousand people discovered that a vegetarian diet is correlated with a reduction (12%) in mortality from any cause (Virtanen.) The findings from these studies clearly demonstrate that there are positive health-related reasons for switching to a vegetarian diet.
The amount of resources it requires to support a plant-based versus a meat-based diet is a second criterion on which to judge the merits of each diet. At present, 820 million people (that is about 1 in 9 people) are in chronic hunger worldwide (FAO.) The current population of the planet is about 7 billion people, with a projected growth to 9.8 billion by the year 2050 (United Nations.) We will need additional resources in the form of food, water and land to support these additional people. Right now, with our current population, we are straining the resources of the planet, and still not doing very well with feeding everyone who needs to be fed. Considering how resource intensive it is to sustain a meat-eating diet it only makes sense that we shift to a plant-based diet. Animal food products not only require us to devote land and other resources to raising farm animals, but they also require us to dedicate land and water resources to raising grain for feeding farm animals. Data published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reflect that compared to plant-based foodstuffs, beef production requires 160 times as much land area and 8 times as much water for irrigation; and poultry and eggs required eight times as much land as for plant-based foodstuffs (Eschel.) A meat-based diet places extraordinary demands on the planet’s resources. The plant-based diet is clearly less resource intensive and kinder to our planet, making it a more sustainable diet plan for all of us.
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The enormous negative impact that producing food for a meat-based diet has on the world’s resources is compounded by the enormous negative impact it has on the quality of the environment of the planet. This is a third criterion on which we can determine the relative benefits of both diet plans. In the process of producing and transporting all of the grain that we need to feed farm animals, we use extraordinary amounts of water, land, and fuel. Then in turn, we use even more land, water, and fuel raising, transporting, slaughtering the animals before they become our food. During all of this production activity, we are degrading the natural air, land and water habitats of the earth. Animal waste pollutes our air and contaminates our groundwater. The animals themselves are a significant contributor to carbon dioxide and methane emissions, which is compounded by the emissions of the vehicles used to transport the feed to the animals and the animals to our tables. The production of meat-based food stuffs produces eleven times as much in greenhouse gasses as does plant-based foodstuffs. (Eschel.) According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, farm animals create 500 million tons of manure each year; and water runoff from animal feedlots pollutes groundwater, as well as rivers and streams (EPA.) Beyond the degradation to our water supply, waste from farm animals pollutes the air. A study of children who live near commercial farm operations (CFO) found that living near a CFO increased asthma rates by 3 times in comparison to children who did not live near a CFO (Merchant, et al.) The negative impact on our environment of raising animals for food consumption adds additional support for the conclusion that the meat-based diet has negative health impacts for humans. Even for those who are not impacted by respiratory disease are affected by the air quality impact of raising animals for a meat-based diet. The contribution of raising farm animals to the build-up of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere contributes to global warming, and its subsequent negative effects on our planet, which include longer periods of drought, local and coastal flooding, more destructive storms and hurricanes, and more intense heat waves (Wuebbles.) The vegetarian diet creates less demand on the environment and is greatly more desirable from a planet-health perspective.
Now that you know why a plant-based diet is better for your health and the earth’s health you are well-prepared to address your friends when they raise the issue of the ethics of killing animals for food. You can tell them that the ethical issue is probably not the most convincing reason for you to change your meat-eating ways. You can tell them that it is far more convincing for you to change to a vegetarian diet because of the health effects it will have for you. You can add that another compelling reason is that a plant-based diet is less burdensome on the planet’s resources. You can bolster your argument by telling them how the production of the vegetarian diet creates less pollution in the earth’s land, air, and water environments. You are going to be a fantastic pitch-person on this topic because you know that scientific research backs you up! Now that you can convincingly argue the benefits of the plant-based diet for your friends, you are really going to want to make the change for yourself. So, put down that burger and start planning a new, plant-based menu for yourself.
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