I want to begin by admitting that I’m very nervous to be sharing my (strong) opinions on this topic. Talking about this tends to really upset and divide people.
I encourage you to do as I do – take each study and claim with a grain of salt, educate yourself, and then decide how to progress. Maybe you’ll decide not to make any changes, maybe you’ll choose to start eating meatless meals once a week, or maybe you’ll choose to pursue a fully vegan lifestyle. I simply want to share what I’ve learned and how it’s influenced my own personal choices. I am not trying to preach about my chosen way of eating!
Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, let’s take a look at my top four reasons for eating a mostly plant-based diet.
ONE // Health
Meat and dairy products in the US are mostly mass-produced and full of hormones and antibiotics. Even dairy from the purest, healthy animal is still filled with hormones meant to make a baby animal gain weight quickly – good for baby cows, but not so good for my health goals. Consumption of any animal protein is actually proven to increase your production of a growth hormone, IGF-1, which is known to trigger cancer cells.
A 2010 study also shows that up to 90% of chicken, pork, and beef on grocery shelves is contaminated with fecal matter, as they are sourced from farms that are often dirty, crowded, and inhumane.
Due to their close, dirty quarters, livestock must be heavily medicated with antibiotics in order to stop the spread of infection and disease. About 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are given to animals, not humans. When we consume these animals, we consume some of these antibiotics, which is contributing to the resistance of germs to antibiotics and a progression toward what the World Health Organization calls “a post-antibiotic era.” This is a genuine threat to human health and would be a major setback in medicine.
BUT WHAT ABOUT PROTEIN?! (Aka every vegetarian’s least favorite topic of conversation.) Despite the fact that I choose to fill my body with beans, leafy greens, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, when I mention that I don’t eat meat many people get suddenly worried about my health. How on earth do I eat enough protein to survive?
In fact, most Americans consume more than double the amount of protein that the body needs to function properly. Plant-based foods are actually some of the best sources of protein, as unlike meat or dairy products, they are also loaded with other micronutrients and phytochemicals that nourish our bodies. All protein begins with plants, and there are more grams of protein lurking in your broccoli than you might think. Plant-based foods offer a complete source of protein, with more than the recommended 8 amino acids present in pretty much any combination of whole, plant-based foods that you would eat in a day.
Plus, when I’m not eating animal-based products and processed foods, these are substituted in my diet with foods that are much more nutrient-dense and healthy, like beans and veggies. I feel so much more healthy and energetic when I eat a wholesome, plant-based diet.
According to the CDC, 70% of deaths in the US are largely related to lifestyle choices – which means they are preventable. It sounds crazy, but it’s almost completely up to you whether or not you will get sick and die from cancer, heart disease, etc. Yes, there are genetic and environmental factors involved, but you control your diet and exercise. These are two of the BIGGEST factors in determining your overall health. Don’t just let them slip aside because you “don’t have time.” You could save your own life!
Unfortunately, many of these animals live in cramped, unpleasant conditions and many are injected with hormones that make them grow to abnormal sizes. For example, chickens are bred to develop abnormally large chests for their bodies, which can result in some animals losing the ability to walk due to being thrown off balance by their disproportionate bodies.
These disturbing conditions are what bothers me the most about animal agriculture. It’s easy to argue that animals are here for us to eat since we are the better predators. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with this argument. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s the factories that breed and slaughter animals at incredible speeds, keeping them in dark, crowded quarters, ignoring health problems, and so on that are my personal problem.
Not to mention, the thought of eating these unhealthy animals is frankly disgusting. When I first began this journey, I still chose to eat meat on weekends, but the more I researched and learned, the less I wanted to eat meat simply because it started to gross me out. It’s such a personal choice!
Now, I realize that I am setting myself up to be called out as a hypocrite, and I am the first to recognize this. I do not live a vegan lifestyle. I don’t go out of my way to purchase vegan beauty products (although I try to avoid animal testing), and I wear leather, wool, silk, etc. Once you start using the word “vegan,” you walk a very tricky line when it comes to animal welfare.
I wear leather because leather products last for years, feel and look high quality, and are comfortable. These factors are important to me. If I ever feel the need to justify this to myself, I think about how a pair of shoes made of leather will last for years, whereas a steak only lasts for as long as it takes you to eat it. Both are made from the flesh of dead cows, and it’s up to me to be comfortable with the choice of whether or not I consume these products, and with the repercussions they have on animal lives and the environment. (Also, purchasing pre-owned leather goods is a great way to reduce your contribution to this industry!)
If I ever do choose to eat meat again in the future, it will be in a thoughtful and purposeful way, and likely only during special meals with family. I’d like to always have a more purposeful and thoughtful regard for the foods that enter my body, even if I do choose to reintroduce animal products into my diet for whatever reason.
According to several studies, a person who eats plant-based for just one day saves over 1,000 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, and 30 square feet of forest. That’s just ONE DAY of your life
You can do much more immediate good for the environment by eating a plant-based diet even just one day a week than you can by taking shorter showers, carpooling or biking, forgoing plastic straws, etc.
FOUR // Money
Despite popular belief, eating plant-based is so much cheaper than eating a standard American diet!
The most expensive thing at the grocery store is meat, especially if you choose to purchase more ethically sourced products. Grains, beans, and veggies are incredibly affordable.
It’s the highly processed meat alternatives, processed, high-protein snack foods, and other packaged products marketed as health foods that are expensive. These are not necessary as a supplement to a whole-foods based diet, although they can be yummy as a treat once in a while.
The staples for a vegan diet are fresh fruits and veggies, rice, quinoa, oats, canned or dried beans, olive oil, spices, etc. Don’t make it complicated and don’t get sucked in by flowery marketing terms – this way of eating has certainly saved me lots of money over the past year.
Don’t Forget Your Mental Health
You’ll notice that I always say that I eat a MOSTLY plant-based diet. No, I am not 100% vegan.
At some point, you need to weigh the value of your choices against your happiness.
Eating a diet rich in meat and dairy products doesn’t make me happy because my body doesn’t feel as healthy and energized as I know it can when I eat a plant-based diet. However, denying myself the pizza that my friends are eating on a Friday night doesn’t make me happy either.
There’s a sense of balance to be found when it comes to living a life that makes you feel and look your very best, and many people fail to consider the incredible importance of mental health in this picture. My social life with friends and family almost always revolves around alcohol. Spending time with these people, having a few drinks and cutting loose, makes me happy.
Is it good for my physical health? Absolutely not. But my mental health would certainly suffer if I were to cut back on socializing, try to force my friends and family to change their social activities for me, or even if I were to go to a bar with them and simply order a glass of water.
A healthy lifestyle should be sustainable for you – and cutting out ALL alcohol, sugar, dairy, eggs, etc. is simply not sustainable for me. Maybe cutting out meat is not sustainable for you – that’s perfectly fine! All we can do is make small, sustainable changes to our lives that help us to feel our best.
For me, that has resulted in cutting out alcohol on weekdays, cutting out animal products on weekdays, and cutting out meat completely. These are choices that I built up to slowly, and that are now sustainable for my life. I didn’t just decide to go vegan overnight. Take your time, try small changes, and build up more and more healthy habits that help you to feel great.
“Treats,” not “Cheats”
Something else that can be really difficult? Not feeling bad about yourself when you do make “unhealthy” choices.
I often struggle with guilt after eating cheese and fries, drinking beer, etc. I’ve found it really helpful to adapt my mindset to one of treating myself – not “cheating” on my “diet.”
This is not a diet. It’s a long-term change, which means you have to actually be able to keep it up for the long-term. If you’re feeling guilty every time to eat some cheese, eventually you might decide to just give up and go back to eating it every single day, despite what you know about the effects on your health.
When you do have a treat, enjoy it. Savor every bite or sip. Allow yourself to be happy that you’re eating something delicious. Don’t feel guilty that it’s sugary or fatty.
For this reason, I don’t like the common health term “cheat meal.” You’re not cheating on anything – cheating has a bad connotation that can easily be associated with guilt and shame. I prefer to think of indulgences in yummy but less healthy foods as treats – something you have every once in a while for fun and enjoyment, but not every day.
A Final Argument
People love to hear good news about their bad habits.
How many headlines have you seen boasting the health benefits of red wine, dark chocolate, or coffee? Of course, you’ll find just as many studies purporting the health benefits of animal products. And it’s true: dairy products are full of calcium, meat is high in protein, and red meat is high in iron.
Here’s my problem with this: these studies ignore the many MORE studies that link the consumption of animal products to health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more. To suggest that we need to consume these products for nutrients encourages people to eat more animal products and fewer plants – resulting in them increasing their intake of potentially harmful ingredients while decreasing their intake of the diverse vitamins and micronutrients in plants.
The ONLY nutrient not available solely through plant-based foods is vitamin B-12. This little fact causes many to argue that the plant-based diet is not actually the perfect dietary solution. OF COURSE IT’S NOT! There is NO perfect diet. There has not been enough conclusive scientific research for any doctor or nutritionist to endorse any specific diet with 100% certainty that it prevents all disease. We simply have to make choices based on the information that we do have.
That being said, I will argue that a B12 deficiency is incredibly rare, and the few vegetarians who have been known to develop a deficiency of this vitamin typically show other signs of general malnutrition as well. There’s literally a one-in-a-million chance of developing a B-12 deficiency, characterized by a completely reversible anemia that can cause tingling in the hands and feet, or in the most extreme cases, damage to the nervous system. (If you’re interested to learn more about B-12, please read this fantastic article!)
However, heavy consumption of animal products is linked to a one-in-two chance of death from a heart attack or stroke, a one-in-seven chance of developing breast cancer, and a one-in-six chance of developing prostate cancer. Other common health issues include osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, constipation, and more.
I’m tempted to say “why take the risk?”, but that’s an argument that can be used for any number of things that I choose to do anyway, despite the “risk.”
As with just about anything else in life, the bottom line is moderation: according to the findings of many, many studies, we can conclude that it’s risky to our health to eat meat and dairy every day. If the benefits of the joy that you get from the taste of meat and dairy are worth it to you, then eat it! If not, cut back! It’s that simple.