People sometimes ask me, “Should I stop eating meat?” Well, I don’t make a habit of telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, but when it comes our diets there are three main reasons for ditching meat and eating only plants. They are for our health; for the planet; and for the animals.
When I was growing up, I ate what my parents taught me to eat. As a result, eating animal-based foods became a mindless activity for me. Like so many, as a young adult I began to question things I’d learned, and started asking myself if the animal-based foods I’d been taught to eat were good for me. One reason I did this was because scientific studies emerged saying the saturated fats found in animal-based foods, such as red meat and butter, contributed to heart disease—the number one killer of Americans. I knew I didn’t want to die of a heart attack, so I made a lifestyle change to stop eating meat.
Meat eaters will tell you that giving up animal-based foods is risky and that you will eventually ruin your health if you become 100 percent plant-based. However, scientific evidence provided by prestigious organizations like the National Institute of Health— the Federal focal point for health and medical research—(NIH), Oxford University, and the New England Journal of Medicine, to name a few, say plant-based lifestyles have the exact opposite effect by both preserving and protecting our health.
My primary care physician says I’m an outlier in his practice because of my healthy lifestyle. And other physicians report their patients who adopt a plant-based lifestyle lose extra weight, reverse diabetes, heart disease, and more!
However, few doctors ask their patients about their diets, and that’s too bad because in 2013, the NIH—an organization dedicated to helping Americans live longer, healthier lives—sent a nutritional update to all US doctors. In the memo, the NIH recommended: “Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.” In their conclusion, they write: “The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables.” Wow! (1) Unfortunately, too many of us would rather rely on pills and surgery then make a lifestyle change.
One reason people are reluctant to change is due to what I call the Meat Industrial Complex and The Meatrix. The Meatrix not only creates animal-based foods, but also advertises those foods as health promoting and necessary. As a result, many of us grow up believing that we need to eat meat for protein and dairy for calcium, not realizing that these nutrients are found abundantly in healthier, plant-based foods.(2) And, we’re much better off when we obtain nutrients from plants. For example, when the bacteria in our gut feast on the L-carnitine found in animal protein (red meat, fish, eggs, and poultry), they produce trimethylamine. Our livers convert trimethylamine into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). According to the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, TMAO contributes to “a higher risk for both cardiovascular disease and early death from any cause.” Another study Harvard indicates that people with elevated levels of TMAO may double their risk of “heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular problems, compared with people who have lower levels.”(3) So, if you want to lower your chance of dying from any cause, especially by a heart attack or stroke, reduce your TMAO levels by avoiding meat, fish, eggs, and poultry!
While eating animal-based foods increases our risk for developing heart disease, it’s been scientifically proven that following a plant-based lifestyle has the opposite effect by helping us avoid cardiovascular disease (CVD) and can reverse coronary artery disease in severely ill patients in as little as three weeks!(4)
And it’s not only heart disease that a plant-based lifestyle can help you avoid, but also cancer, too. In July 2022, the Mayo Clinic reported that diet and nutrition could prevent 25 percent of all cancers. They said, “In research studies, vegans—those who don’t eat any animal products including fish, dairy or eggs—appeared to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet.”(5)
Furthermore, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans. WHO considers processed meat to be that which “has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes that enhance flavor or improve preservation.” These meats include bacon, hotdogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, and canned meat, as well as meat-based preparations and sauces. WHO designated processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen because “there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer.”(6) WHO spoke specifically of colorectal cancer, but further evidence from the same IARC study also links processed meats with pancreatic and prostate cancer.(7)
And, it’s not only red and processed meats associated with an increased risk of cancers and mortality; dairy products are proven to increase the risk of death from prostate cancer. The International Journal of Cancer reported the results of a ten-year Physicians Health Study that monitored the dairy intake of 926 men diagnosed with prostate cancer. Men who consumed three or more servings of dairy products daily increased their risk for death by 76 percent. This same group had a 141 percent higher risk of death due to prostate cancer than those who consumed less than eight ounces of dairy daily. The study found no evidence of low-fat dairy products offering any protection. The researchers believe the saturated fat, hormones, and calcium found in dairy products account for the increased risk.(8)
And, there are reasons beyond personal health to stop eating meat.
Should I stop eating meat for the planet? Recent surveys indicate that a majority of people who adopt a plant-based lifestyle do so for health reasons.(9) However, a plant-based lifestyle is also a powerful way to reduce our carbon footprint. In fact, Oxford University conducted a five-year study analyzing over 38,000 farms in 119 countries and determined that the average American could lower their carbon footprint by a whopping 73 percent simply by becoming plant-based.(10) Yet, a recent poll conducted by Ipsos, a multinational market research and consulting firm, revealed that only 6 percent of Americans surveyed understand the powerful impact that a plant-based lifestyle has on reducing personal greenhouse gas emissions.(11)
In 2019, the Lancet published a study defining global targets of diet and food production based on the objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accords. Its Lancet Commission—composed of eighteen commissioners and eighteen coauthors from sixteen countries in various fields, including human health, agriculture, environmental sustainability, and political sciences—recommended diets consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, with a zero or low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.
Number one on their list of key messages is 820 million people are food insecure and malnourished, while others consume an unhealthy diet contributing to premature death and morbidity. The commission went further, saying that “global food production is the largest pressure caused by humans on Earth, threatening local ecosystems and the stability of the Earth system.”(12)
I know I found this information shocking. I believe that if asked most people would say energy production (the fossil fuel industry) or the transportation sector (planes, trains, and automobiles) puts more pressure on the Earth than food production. But according to this study they’d be wrong. For a little perspective on how harmful animal agriculture is for climate change, Steven Chu, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says if all meat and dairy cows on the earth were a country, they’d have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire UK and EU combined!(13)
And, in their paper, Livestock and Climate Change, Robert Goodland, a former lead environmental advisor at the World Bank Group, and Jeff Anhang, a research officer and environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, reported that “livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions.”(14)
Improving one’s health and reducing one’s greenhouse gas emissions are two very compelling, science-based reasons to stop eating meat, but another reason to give up eating meat is for the animals.
Should I stop eating meat for the animals? Most people in the US eat meat daily and rarely consider the plight of farmed animals. Yet, when asked, almost every American says they’re concerned about animal welfare. In fact, a 2012 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners revealed that 94 percent of the public agrees that “from every step of their lives on a farm—from birth to slaughter—farm animals should be treated in a way that inflicts the least amount of pain and suffering possible.” The study also concluded that 71 percent support undercover investigative efforts to expose animal abuse on industrial farms.(15) Likewise, in a 2018 survey conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 76 percent of consumers across every demographic expressed concern toward animals raised for food.(16) The meat industry knows that an overwhelming number of people are against many of the practices required when treating farm animals as food commodities, so it works hard to keep the public from seeing the dark underside of the industry.
Whether we like to admit it or not, when we purchase animal-based foods we support industries and help pay the salaries of people who do unnecessary harm to farmed animals. So, if we say we’re against needlessly harming animals, and almost all Americans are, than becoming plant-based is our most logical choice.
A plant-based lifestyle is associated with better health outcomes and is also the single most effective action each of us can take to reduce our personal carbon footprint. And when we eat only plants, we’re helping reduce the needless suffering of farmed animals, something that concerns nearly every American. So, for these reasons, and the many others found in my book, Escape the Meatrix, I encourage everyone to adopt a plant-based lifestyle!