Aidan Smith: Despite Meat Industry Lies, Plant-Based Diets Are Healthy
The latest report from the United Nations on the direction the environment is heading is the scariest so far. In order to turn things around, the UN recommends—among other things—that each of us eat more plant-based foods. I’m willing to accept that eating plant-based food is good for the climate and for animals. But as someone who has eaten meat my entire life, I had to ask the question—is plant-based food good for me?”
Like many people, I’ve heard that plant-based diets lead to protein deficiency. I may like eating meat, but I can’t stomach disinformation. After diving into the research, what I found surprised me. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics makes it clear: “vegetarian, including vegan, diets typically meet or exceed recommended protein intakes.” The Academy adds that a well-rounded plant-based diet “supplies enough of all indispensable (essential) amino acids,” contrary to the myth that plant-based options lack specific essential amino acids.
But even as I came across more and more scientific studies about the positive health benefits of plant-based meats and foods, it was still difficult on a subconscious level to accept that I can build muscle without—well—eating muscle. As a very active person, I’ve always operated under the implicit belief that flesh builds flesh. So, I went even deeper into the science to see if there are any plant-based options that can compete with meat.
As it turns out, it’s entirely possible to supplant the meat in my diet with high-protein plant-based options like nuts, seeds, and legumes, all of which are widely available. Other protein-rich plant-based foods include wheat-based seitan or soybean products like tofu and soy milk. But can those options actually replace all of what I love about meat? Including, let’s be blunt – taste?
Well, according to senior clinical nutritionist Emily Gelsomin of Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burgers have as much if not more protein than meat. Gelsomin also noted that both meat alternatives contain key vitamins and minerals like Zinc and cobalamin (B12) which are found in meat protein. As for taste—many of these plant-based meats are earning rave reviews, even from those with far more sophisticated pallets than mine.
Furthermore—and this was harder to swallow – with the United States currently experiencing a mortality crisis compared to other industrialized nations, I had to pay attention to the fact that plant-based diets have been connected to a decrease in mortality. Even the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a traditional backer of meat, has admitted that people who eat more plant-based foods tend to have“lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality.”
As it turns out, a 2022 study found that rates of heart attack mortality in America are alarmingly high compared to other wealthy nations. Red meat consumption is associated with poor health, as proved by a Harvard University longitudinal study. Nonetheless, despite its detrimental health impact, beef consumption remains widespread in America. The US has over 100 million fewer people than the European Union —around 336 million to 447 million in 2021—, but we consume 10,000,000,000 more pounds of beef.
In light of these statistics, even making small choices like picking a plant-based burger over a beef patty could be a big win. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), “eating a nutritious, plant-based diet may lower the risk for heart attacks and other types of cardiovascular disease.” A study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that eating tofu reduces LDL cholesterol and lowers the risk of a heart attack. In a nation where heart attacks occur every 40 seconds, each of us choosing even occasional plant-based alternatives to red meat probably makes a lot of sense.
Let’s also talk about fiber. I and most of my friends don’t tend to focus on the role of fiber in building a well-rounded diet. According to the American Society for Nutrition, the average American diet is lacking in fiber. It turns out plant-based meat alternatives have higher fiber contents than meat. I was stunned to learn, in fact, that meat has no fiber at all, which might be why sometimes I get a heavy feeling after eating meat. A study of people who switched out at least two servings of meat a day in favor of meat alternatives found that participants came out with higher rates of fiber consumption and lower rates of saturated fat consumption.
All this could be why a 2021 survey by the International Food Information Council found that one in four Americans reported consuming more protein derived from plant sources than they had done the year prior. According to the Washington Post, a majority of U.S. households bought plant-based foods during the peak days of the pandemic, with milk alternatives and meat alternatives proving the most popular. I myself made the switch to oat milk in 2021 and haven’t looked back since — and as recent data from Morning Consult found, I’m hardly the only one.
At a time when even the fast food chains that rose to popularity with “eat more chikin” billboards are testing plant-based options, it’s obvious where the winds are heading. Plant-based foods are becoming as American as apple pie — and with more plant-based alternatives to milk, butter, and eggs available than ever before, it’s getting pretty easy to make a plant-based apple pie. A Bloomberg Intelligence report from 2021 estimated that plant-based food sales would see fivefold growth by the end of the decade, and it’s not hard to see why: American consumers have more options than ever when it comes to building a plant-based diet.
Anyway. All that research gave me an appetite. And I think I’m finally at the point where I’d prefer to bite into something that’s going to help me live longer and healthier. So—maybe don’t tell my friends just yet—but a plant-based burger, it is.
First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Aidan Smith is a political consultant and commentator. His work focuses on issue areas including federal personnel, competition policy, and foreign policy.
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I agree with you.
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Thank you! Yes, I’ve been on a plant diet for 13 years and my health is excellent.
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Thanks for this Michael. It was helpful and what I knew in my heart. I wish I could live on chocolate alone however. Preparing to send you poems one or two about MC Richards–don’t think I ever sent them to you. Experimenting with a small series–that incorporates a prompt I could have or did give to students decades ago–realizing that the prompts and exercises as I wrote them–like footnotes–are part of the whole–part of the poem. It’s like talking to a self from decades back–but writing in the now–writing to my own former exercises that I gave to others. I never did that when I was managing those workshops or classes. Not all I do/did. Love, Rosaly
Thanks, Rosaly. Always a pleasure to hear from you.
My daughter (52) has been a vegetarian since she was 16. She is one of the healthiest people I know. She gives her daughter the choice. Her daughter is a totally healthy 13-year old vegetarian. For now.
Thanks, Rose Mary: here’s my experience of being a vegan for 13 years: https://voxpopulisphere.com/2020/09/26/michael-simms-a-few-thoughts-from-a-cowboy-vegan/