The Benefits Of Vegetarian Lifestyle

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Since the dawning of life, food has always been a necessity for survival. From simple, unicellular bacteria to complex, multicellular human beings, a source of energy must be consumed to give rise to a living organism. However, the nutritional value of the food that enters the body is equally important to consuming food itself. The types of nutrients ingested in a diet heavily affect the organism’s lifestyle and hence the environment around them. Among the various methods of maintaining a healthy diet is vegetarianism ― the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat. This meatless practice first sprouted from the ancient Greek era, and its popularity has since been steadily growing into a norm of modern society. According to the “Vegetarianism in America” study published by the Vegetarian Times, an estimated 7.3 million U.S. adults follow a vegetarian-based diet, whether it be for the trend or its benefits. Despite the arguments from critics, vegetarianism should be encouraged and practiced to preserve a healthy body, improve the state of our environment, and reduce expenditures on healthcare and meat-related expenses.

By eliminating red meat consumption, a vegetarian diet helps to maintain a healthy body.

The risk for heart disease and cardiac events is reduced, as well as the risk of cancer. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, can be caused by an unhealthy diet commonly found in meat dishes. “In one of the largest studies ― a combined analysis of data from five prospective studies involving more than 76,000 participants published several years ago [relative to 2009] ― vegetarians were, on average, 25% less likely to die of heart disease” (Becoming a Vegetarian). Based on Harvard Health, the risk of cardiovascular disease reduces by 25% with an exclusively vegetarian diet (shown in the figure at left). Along with the reduction of medical expenses, the longevity of one’s life can be prolonged as heart disease is often a precursor to silent killers such as strokes and heart attacks. According to Alok Khorana, MD, Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at Cleveland Clinic, the risk of cancer for those partaking in a meat-based diet most likely originates from the processing of the meat (The Link Between Red Meat and Cancer). Cancer has long been an issue scientists have yet to resolve as there is no permanent cure for it. With the presence of cancer cells in a body system, the risk of death intensifies, taking a devastating toll on the victim. Harmful chemicals, like pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics, used in farming red meat negatively affect human health. These chemicals are utilized in the farming of livestock to minimize bacterial infections and promote rapid growth and development. “Industrial livestock farming relies heavily on antibiotic use to accelerate weight gain and control infection,” contributing to “the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance” (Vergunst). As a result of the increasing antibiotic resistance, those who eat meat have higher medical costs, suffer increased mortality, and experience an accumulation of toxins in their bodies. Reduced risk for many chronic diseases and greater longevity is often associated with a plant-based diet. For instance, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity are common issues that arise with the consumption of meat. “Vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber … As a result, they’re likely to have lower total and LDL [low-density lipoprotein, or bad] cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index … ” (Becoming a Vegetarian). A diet rich in plant-based foods that is low in fat and primarily whole foods focused, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, supplies the body with fuel that contributes to better overall health.

Farming livestock for consumption has a detrimental environmental footprint. The livestock industry utilizes a vast amount of water, polluting the majority of the clean, freshwater inputted. Agriculture, including livestock, accounts for the largest intake of freshwater in the United States. Water is directly needed for the drinking and cleaning of animals and indirectly consumed to grow the feed that livestock animals eat (Save Our Water: The Vegetarian Way). Around 25%, or 1.6 billion, of the United States population lack access to clean water, which is an indispensable component in regulating basic bodily functions. “Along with the manure flow lots of other undesirables including pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and their breakdown products, not to mention the surplus of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from fertilizers …” are discharged into waterways, upsetting the natural balance of an ecosystem (Save Our Water: The Vegetarian Way). Contamination of pathogens in clean water can cause illness or death in humans, including cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid, and can disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Many biodiverse ecosystems are being cleared to grow feed for animal agriculture. “According to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and the crops that feed them” (Veganism and the Environment). Due to deforestation in some of the most productive ecosystems, countless habitats are lost, decreasing biodiversity and the viability of the next generation of species. Meat production also emits greenhouse gases, ultimately contributing to climate change. Factory farms produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases and other contaminants that pollute the air (Veganism and the Environment). Livestock, namely cattle, is hugely responsible for producing methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Cormier). By reducing the number of trees that can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, more greenhouse gases are present within the atmosphere. As a result of the greenhouse gases’ ability to retain heat well, raising livestock surmounts to the greater effect of global warming, disrupting the balance of our environment.

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Eating lower in a trophic pyramid (producers, also known as plants) results in higher energy gains and less energy lost as heat. Non-vegetarians consume large quantities of primary consumers, like cows, chickens, pigs, and lamb, meaning the livestock require a fair amount of energy to grow to the point where they can be eaten by the next trophic level. “Since only a small amount of the energy that goes into raising the animal is actually available to the next trophic level, animals are a very energy-intensive food compared to just eating plants directly” (Crow). The nutrients gained from eating animals is mainly proteins and undesirable fats while the required nutrients are predominantly found in plant sources and cannot be “passed on” through eating a primary producer. Energy conversion from trophic level to trophic level is not efficient. “In general, roughly 90 percent of stored energy is lost as waste heat each time you go up the food chain by one trophic level” (Brennan). By choosing plants over animals, there would be less energy wasted as heat, meaning fewer resources would be required to satisfy a vegetarian’s diet as opposed to a meat-eaters. Non-vegetarians, usually eating from the third or fourth trophic level, are more susceptible to biological magnification. Because consumers on higher trophic levels have to eat more to compensate for the energy lost as heat, the risk of becoming intoxicated by any hazardous chemical heightens as the concentration of toxins increases at each trophic level (Friedland and Relyea). Due to biomagnification, humans, sitting at the top of the trophic pyramid, often have the highest concentration of toxins, which in turn intensifies the risk of developing diseases or illnesses. From a biological standpoint, consuming plants results in a lowered risk of toxin-based health issues.

There are economic benefits to going vegetarian as well, including healthcare-related savings and avoided meat expenses. Transitioning to a plant-based diet may save the United States hundreds of billions of dollars by excluding meat expenses. “In a study … in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [researchers] at the University of Oxford conservatively estimate that if people continue to follow current trends of meat consumption, rather than shifting to a more balanced or plant-based diet, it could cost the U.S. between $197 billion and $289 billion each year” (Davis). As one of the largest agricultural sectors, reducing meat consumption would allow the resources to be used for issues of greater urgency such as climate change or the lack of clean water. If the U.S. followed went vegetarian, the U.S. would save $258.6 billion by 2050; if everyone went vegan, $289.1 billion 2050 annual savings (Davis). By further limiting a diet to avoid meat or animal products, there are greater national savings, meaning there would be an improved state of the economy. From a healthcare perspective, trillions can be saved by avoiding the health risks of consuming meat. “Changing dietary patterns could save $1 trillion annually by preventing health care costs and lost productivity” (Worland). By refusing meat, the risk of health issues like cardiovascular diseases or cancer would reduce, simultaneously reducing the medical expenses needed to buffer the illnesses.

The role of government is to provide its citizens with national security, which includes ensuring citizens’ basic needs of health care; this leads to the establishment of the nationally acknowledged food pyramid. Science-based dietary guidelines were established in the United States to encourage Americans to make healthy food choices. “The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization, published guidelines that can effectively be represented in a food pyramid relating to objectives to prevent obesity, chronic diseases and dental caries based on meta-analysis …” (Wikipedia Food Pyramid). By nationally providing Americans advice on their dietary choices, they are prompted to make more conscious decisions in regards to their consumption habits. The food pyramid and recommended dietary patterns have evolved since the early 1900s, transitioning to a more plant-based diet. The first food pyramid, created by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), outlines a diet with each food group eaten in equal portions. The food pyramids have evolved to consume a greater portion of vegetables than protein, as illustrated in the 2011 “MyPlate” update (A Brief History of USDA Food Guides). Plants have been realized to carry a greater nutritional value than that of meat, placing the vegetable food group above proteins.

Among the arguments of opponents of vegetarianism include the lack of nutrients vital to the body. A plant-based diet excludes any meat products, along with the essential nutrients it contains. A deficiency of those vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, and vitamin D and B12, would fail to properly carry out bodily functions in a healthy manner. “ … vegetarians have a higher risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency compared with people who consume animal-based products,” often requiring nutritional supplements in their diets (Nordqvist). Vitamin B12 helps the body’s production of red blood cells; a vitamin B12 deficiency often results in an anemic disorder. The iron found in meat, especially red meat, can be more readily absorbed after consumption than the iron found in plant-based foods, known as non-heme iron (this includes grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds) (Becoming a vegetarian). Iron, the main component in hemoglobin aids in transporting oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. An iron deficiency would also result in anemia. Although meat has nutrients that cannot be gotten from plants, various vegetarian substitutes that are available in abundant supplies and are easily accessible provide nutrients that meat lacks. “Research has linked tofu, with its high levels of isoflavones [phytochemicals, which are compounds found only in plants], to a lower risk of several age- and lifestyle-related diseases,” such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancer, and Type 2 diabetes (Ware). As a supplement to the essential nutrients often found in meat, soy and various dairy products can fulfill the niche left open by the lack of animal products. With similar proteins as red meat, these vegetarian-friendly substitutes are both sustainable towards the environment and the body. Despite certain nutrients only available in meat, promotion to transition to vegetarianism has been suppressed by major meat industries that manipulate their economic and political power to skew the U.S. dietary guidelines. “Since 1977, for example, under pressure from meat producers, federal dietary advice has evolved from ‘decrease consumption of meat’ to ‘have two or three (daily) servings’” (Nestle). “She [Nestle, former chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University] says of years past: ‘I was told we could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA would not allow it’ (Heid). As a result, “ … the final guidelines list red meat alongside seafood, poultry, and other protein sources as elements of a ‘healthy eating pattern’” (Heid). Due to the immense amount of power meat industries hold in government, there has been little to no promotion of an entirely or dominantly vegetarian diet. By way of corruption, citizens of the United States and viewers of the dietary guidelines are left in the dark about what is truly beneficial towards one’s health: vegetarianism.

In conclusion, the detrimental effects of a diet including meat and the benefits of vegetarianism undoubtedly offset the disadvantages of a meatless diet in regards to different nutritional intake. As you dig further into the effects of meat consumption, countless negative aspects, such as the lack of crucial plant-based nutrients and the environmentally harmful production of meat, are revealed. Therefore, vegetarianism should be encouraged and practiced. 

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