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 (unnecessary for us to consume as our body metabolizes it naturally, and dietary cholesterol leads to health complications such as heart disease, and atherosclerosis), while the latter is high in fiber. Most people fear they won’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but this is almost never an issue for vegetarians or vegans. 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 the benefits of calcium found in dairy are often lauded by advertisements, those following a plant-based diet often have better absorption of calcium. Cow’s milk products are typically thought of the only source of calcium, but the vital nutrient can be sourced from figs, kale, spinach, black eyed peas, and turnip greens.
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. The nutritional reality is that there is no compound necessary for human survival 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 every human’s nutritional needs. Vitamin D, sometimes only believed to be present in wild fish, is metabolized by the human body through sunlight, or easily supplemented.
Human physiology is much more suited to a herbivorous diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Our digestive tract is 8-10 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, rather than carnivorous animals with sharp fangs and incisors perfect for tearing flesh and quickly swallowing it. Those who fear being weak and emaciated on a plant-based diet should look to our primate cousins, gorillas, whose diet is predominantly bananas and the occasional insect. If our physiologies are so similar, why would gorillas be as strong and muscular as they are and humans depleted of all muscle-building amino acids? This being said, it is important to be mindful of caloric density as we plan our meals, as plant foods are typically much less calorically dense than animal foods, and to obtain a similar amount of calories, it is usually necessary to increase portion size. This fact is conversely appealing to those looking to lose weight on a vegetarian diet, as it is more difficult to overeat on plant foods, and more energy is metabolized by the body, making exercise easier and less strenuous. Many of the most successful athletes are opting away from animal products for the performance and health benefits. 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.