Humans are more removed from our food system than ever before. Unlike our foraging predecessors, or farming grandparents, our luxury of urbanization and industrialization of labour, people are moving further away from food production. Historically, family and culture would have dictated our diets. Today, marketing companies and government agencies rule those decisions. This shift has taken a tremendous toll on our bodies. What was once an obvious necessity has become a maze of misinformation and special interests.
“Food” today is processed for optimum taste, with often chemical hacks hijacking that result, maximum convenience, and minimum nutrition. In the late 19th century, industrialists stumbled upon an ingenious invention that would change the way humans eat. This steel roller mill allowed wheat processors to separate the pristine white endosperm from the bran and germ of the grain. Not only achieving an aesthetic ideal, this new food-like product could last almost indefinitely on shelves, meaning that lost nutrition was supplanted by higher profits.
The fate of wheat was closely succeeded by corn, soy, and rice. Our modern food system in the West is fueled by these cash crop staples processed beyond nutritional recognition. The economically efficient manner of transforming corn into high fructose corn syrup has allowed food producers to offer nutritionally void products that satisfy an innate human craving – calorically dense, sweet foods. After all, homo sapiens were wired for scarcity. A hunter gatherer that walks 20 miles a day and subsists largely off berries, nuts and mushrooms could surely afford the caloric excess of a Coca-Cola “Supergulp”, or the closest natural equivalent. Our inborn desire for rich, salty or sweet foods enabled survival for our ancestors that subsisted in the African savannah. Now, our sweet tooth leads to chronic disease, obesity, and a global health epidemic. Clearly, we are not eating for health.
The further we move away from our ancestral diets, the more likely we are to suffer from conditions that our forebears would have never contended with. The few remaining hunter-gatherer societies don’t content with the ails of the wealthy west; obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. For all the wealth and prosperity that the agricultural and industrial revolutions brought us, our domestication doomed us into fatal indulgence.
A 2018 Progress in Cardiovascular Disease report found that a vegetarian diet is associated with a 40% lower risk of heart disease. Generally, the higher a person’s diet is in whole plant foods, the less likely they are to suffer from heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and a variety of cancers. The consumption of animal fats have been linked to diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, breast, colon and prostate cancer.
Even those unconcerned with the worst culprits for North American mortality can benefit from a transition to a vegetarian diet. Although vegan and vegetarian junk food options certainly exist, a shift to more mindful eating habits has the potential to drastically alter an individual’s dietary planning. Plant-based diets are associated with lower BMIs, more energy, lower stress levels, more regular bowel movements, and a longer lifespan.
One of the most significant differences between a diet high in animal products and one plentiful in plant foods is that the former contains cholesterol, while the latter is high in fiber. Dietary cholesterol, which is found in abundance in animal foods, is unnecessary for us to consume as our liver metabolizes it naturally from plants.
Many advocates for an omnivorous diet claim that it is natural for humans to eat meat – that our bodies need animal protein to stay healthy. Proponents of this lifestyle point to our hunter gatherer ancestors that depended on animals to survive. In fact, for the grand majority of human history, we subsisted off of a majority of plant foods with the occasional access to hunted spoil or a slaughtered farm animal. While our bodies certainly need the amino acids from protein to build muscle, this protein is found in a vast array of plant foods. After all, livestock had to source their amino acids from somewhere to provide for human needs.
Some skeptics fear they won’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but this is almost never an issue for vegetarians or vegans. Rates of nutrient deficiency levels for vegetarians and vegans are about equal to the rest of the population, Those eating an omnivorous diet are much more likely to suffer from fiber deficiency, which is incredibly unlikely on a diet high in plant foods, which are naturally fiber-rich. Fiber is a vital plant compound that limits sugar absorption into the bloodstream (lowering blood sugar levels in the long-run), aids in the feeling of satiety, and balances cortisol levels. The highest fiber content is found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. While some vegetarians may suffer from vitamin deficiencies, these rates are no higher than in the rest of the omnivorous population.
The nutritional benefits of calcium found in dairy have been a marketing gold mine for decades. The popular consciousness that condemns plant-based diets fears they will miss out on essential nutrients like calcium if they were to cut out animal products from their meals. In fact, those following a plant-based diet often have better absorption of calcium. Often the natural culinary combinations in vegetarian cuisine confer vital nutritional benefits. For example, vitamin C aids in iron and calcium absorption. Foods like tahini and chickpeas (high in iron, fat, and calcium) are commonly paired with tomatoes, which are high in vitamin C. Although nutritionists are still only scratching the surface of the field as complicated as the human relationship to food, some of the answers are found in the existing eating habits that humans have practiced for centuries.
On the nutritional scale, there is no necessary compound found in animal products which cannot be found in plants, supplemented, or metabolized from plant foods. Vitamin B12 was easily obtained by our ancestors that did not wash their produce, but is often missed in modern diets of chemically treated, soil-free crops. The convenient truth is that many plant-foods such as almond or soy milk and nutritional yeast are fortified with Vitamin B12, and provide a cruelty-free alternative to suit everyone’s nutritional needs. B12 is often considered to be impossible to source without eating meat, but the majority of B12 supplements are fed directly to livestock so the industry can continue to benefit from this nutritional loophole. Vitamin D, sometimes only believed to be present in wild fish, is metabolized by the human body through sunlight, or easily supplemented.
Evidence suggests that human physiology is more functionally suited to a herbivorous diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Our digestive tract is 8 to 10 times the length of our body, similar to that of other large land mammals who eat plants and have slower rates of digestion than biological carnivores or omnivores. Our flat front teeth and molars are functionally suited to chewing plants. Animals that are obligate carnivores have sharp fangs and incisors that are perfect for tearing flesh and quickly swallowing it. Additionally, their shorter digestive tracts and more acidic stomachs are better suited to killing the microbes present in raw or decaying animal flesh.
The fear-mongering surrounding the proposed effects of a vegetarian diet result from a chronic lack of misinformation. If an individual has been consuming meat his entire life, and fed powerful advertising messages from animal agriculture lobby groups, it is understandable that the unknown of plant-based diet could seem intimidating and wrong. There is a popular misconception that vegetarians are weak and emaciated, and would return to a healthy physique if only they were to “eat a cheeseburger”. In fact, provided the diet is nutritionally balanced and well-planned, eating plant-based could be one of the best things you could do for your body.
Far from emaciation, our primate cousins, gorillas, thrive off a diet of primarily bamboo and fruit. This fiber and vitamin-rich diet allows them to easily maintain a healthy, muscular physique. With 98% identical DNA, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a balanced gorilla diet would lead to emaciation for humans. Human bodies synthesize molecular muscle building blocks from plant protein, just like our primate relatives. A balanced plant-based diet that is rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants is the optimum way to ward off disease while feeling strong and capable.
Meat may contain protein, but the rest of its nutritional portfolio pales in comparison to plants. When human diets are over-reliant on animal foods, the excess protein is consumed at the expense of disease-fighting plants. However, vegetarians, especially those first transitioning to plant-based diets, must be mindful of caloric density when meal-planning. As plant foods are typically much less calorically dense than animal foods, to obtain a minimum caloric intake it is usually necessary to increase portion size.
The significance of caloric density is conversely appealing to those looking to lose weight on a vegetarian diet. Particularly a dietary regimen composed of whole, fresh plant foods is incredibly difficult to overeat on. The process of digesting plants is much less energy intensive on the body than digesting meat, so we end up with leftover energy from the consumed calories. This enables easier and less strenuous exercise.
As the health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets are so plentiful and tangible, it is no wonder that these lifestyles are picking up new adherents at exponential rates. There has been a 600% increase in self-identified vegans in the United States in the past three years. Athletes are no strangers to optimized diets for peak health and performance. Endurance runner Scott Jurek, Ultra champion Rich Roll, skiing star Heather Mills, and Germany’s strongest man, Patrik Baboumian, are just a few examples of athletes thriving on fully plant-based diets. If some of the healthiest individuals in the world are abstaining from animal products, new vegetarians can be confident that their decision to help the planet, save the animals, and take charge of their health puts them in great company!