The meat-eater vs. vegetarian debate has long been a hot topic of conversation, which has arguably only grown in recent years, particularly as we have become more aware of the wider impacts of our diets. As more and more research is being done into the effects of what we eat on our health and environment, it can be difficult to actually understand what our diet choices mean for us and the world around us. Alice Leng discusses.
Whilst each group, whether that be meat-eaters, vegetarians, or vegans, for example, will advocate for their choices, is there really one diet that is the best? Are vegetarians healthier? Are meat-eaters unsustainable? With so much information circling, it’s hard to find a clear answer, but one factor is for certain: whatever you choose to eat, it’s all about balance.
You might be wondering, what does vegetarian actually mean? There are many variations of vegetarian diets, but generally it means a diet that excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood. The difference between a vegetarian and a vegan is that on top of these things, vegans will also avoid all animal products such as eggs and dairy.
As a meat-eater, I have often thought about whether or not I could go vegetarian. Could I live without chicken nuggets? If sports stars like Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic can be vegan, surely it would be good for me?
However, after doing some research, the question I found myself asking was not whether I could, but whether I should. According to the UN, a third of man-made greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to food systems, (referring to the way we produce, process and package food).
Alarmingly the BBC reports that the UN has estimated that livestock makes up more than 14% of this globally. In addition, beef production is thought to be the leading cause of deforestation in tropical rainforests such as the Amazon. The same BBC report illustrated in their graph that a portion of the highest-impact vegetable proteins, for example tofu, emits less than the lowest-impact animal proteins, such as chicken.
People will often argue that “eating meat is good for you. You can’t get all of your vitamins and minerals from plants!”
But it is often thought that meat-eaters are destroying the planet and plant-based eaters can’t substitute meat sufficiently. This, however, is a common misconception. Whilst it is true, as the statistics prove that meat consumption is a leading factor in environmental degradation, it has been found that meat can be consumed sustainably and ethically.
Meat consumption doesn’t have to mean environmental destruction; there are ways to reduce its impact. This doesn’t necessarily entail substituting meat for other foods, it can also mean reducing your meat intake, or sourcing your meat locally as this reduces food miles.
Additionally, choosing organic and free-range meats and dairy products is not only more ethical, as they provide higher animal welfare standards, but also reduces environmental damage and so can be sustainable.
But what about vegetarian diets? Becoming a vegetarian is now much more accessible thanks to more inclusive restaurants and menus, improving meat substitutes, a wider availability of fresh produce and the growing influences of cultures with largely plant-based diets.
It’s even estimated that around 5-7% of the UK are now vegetarian. So what are the benefits? Not only do non-animal proteins emit less greenhouse gases, but some studies even show that vegetarians are at a lower risk of heart-related diseases, such as heart-attacks, whilst the consumption of red meat actually increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
Vegetarians can also find substitutes for most of the vitamins and minerals they need from sources such as nuts (great for the omega-3 acids typically sourced from fish), certain vegetables such as bok choy and kale (which supply calcium), and plant-based proteins (such as beans, lentils and whole grains). As well as the benefits to your health and environment, a vegetarian or plant-based diet can also mean a cheaper food shop and less time preparing food!
Nevertheless, to return to my earlier statement, it is important to take into consideration the need for balance within your diet. Meat is rich in protein, and one of the main sources of B12, but there is no denying the fact that meat production and consumption is a leading factor of environmental degradation.
Your diet is your choice, you may be vegan one day and vegetarian the next
Although vegetarian and plant-based diets have lower risks of heart-related diseases and lower greenhouse gas emissions, it is worth acknowledging that substitutes to proteins and vitamins, such as some nuts and oils, aren’t absorbed by the body as effectively.
Essentially, there are many pros and cons to each diet. Therefore, the key to ensuring that what you’re eating is not only good for you but also the planet, is balance. Changing your diet to improve your health and sustainability doesn’t mean you have to make drastic changes like cutting out meat altogether.
It could mean going meat free for a day or two a week, or trying out vegetarian restaurants. Your diet is your choice, you may be vegan one day and vegetarian the next; you don’t have to be confined to labels.
So, whilst I am not trying to convince you that you must change your diet, perhaps instead this has encouraged you to look at your eating habits in a new way. Maybe your new year’s resolution was to eat healthier, or to improve your sustainability, or perhaps you are simply looking for some new recipes to add to your roster of university meals on a budget.
Whatever it may be, reducing your meat consumption is an easy, achievable, feel-good first step. Not only will you be improving your health, but you’ll be reducing your carbon footprint. Perhaps if you’re still struggling to think of a resolution, cutting down your meat consumption could be one to consider!
Featured image courtesy of Katie Smith via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.
In-article image 1 courtesy of @Vegan_friendly_uk via Instagram.com. No changes were made to this image
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