Due in part to the rise and fall of the Atkins diet as well as the current popularity of the paleo diet fad, we frequently receive questions about which is healthier, eating meat or being a vegetarian.
Eating healthy and eating animals are not mutually-exclusive behaviors. However, a vegetarian lifestyle offers several advantages compared to living life as an omnivore.
- Vegetarian protein sources tend to be lower in saturated fat, the type of fat that experts across the world agree raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, a three-ounce grilled steak contains approximately five grams of saturated fat while an equivalent serving of tofu has less than half that amount.
- Vegetarian sources are much higher in fiber. One cup of black beans contains 15 grams of fiber, whereas one cup of chicken breast contains none. Among fiber’s benefits are bowel regularity, cholesterol management, and reduced cardiovascular disease risk.
- Vegetarian options are typically cheaper in comparison to meats. For example, most meat-based burritos with guacamole at Chipotle cost $8.45, while a vegetarian burrito with guacamole is only $6.25.
- A vegetarian lifestyle reduces the environmental impact that comes with raising animals for their meat. According to a 2011 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives; people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
- A vegetarian diet spares the lives of countless animals that would otherwise be slaughtered for their meat. According to statistics that the USDA released in September, 2,820,000 cattle, 64,500 calves, 9,560,000 pigs, and 208,100 lambs were slaughtered in the month of August alone.
Nothing says one has to declare himself or herself a vegetarian in order to reap these benefits. Consider incorporating more meatless meals and snacks into your routine in order to improve your health, the environment, and the welfare of animals.
While vegetarianism definitely can be a very healthy lifestyle, life without meat can come with consequences.
- Meat, fish, and poultry are packed with a number of nutrients that are important for the body. All of them are excellent sources of protein, which is essential for numerous body functions, including building tissues and fortifying the immune system. While one can get proteins from plant sources, they tend to be less concentrated; that is, you would need a lot more of the plant to get the same amount as found in meat.
- Meat also is an important source of iron, which is essential for the formation of red blood cells. And again, while one can get iron from non-meat sources, it is not as readily absorbed by the body as iron from meat sources.
- Finally, vitamin B12, found only in meat, fish and poultry, is essential for a myriad of functions, including cell differentiation and fetal spinal cord formation during pregnancy. Vegetarians need to be extra careful about getting enough B12, as it can result in a type of anemia. Most doctors would suggest that those who do not eat any meat, fish or poultry should receive monthly B12 shots administered by a health practitioner.
Bottom line: If you lead a vegetarian lifestyle, you will need to be especially careful about getting enough protein, iron, and B12 in order to be healthy.