FOOD AND NUTRITION PHILOSOPHY (WHEN DID EATING BECOME SO COMPLICATED?)

Visit any supermarket today and you’ll see shelves lined with hundreds of items that just a few decades ago would have scarcely been recognized as food.

  • Yogurt in a tube
  • Lunchables
  • Pasteurized processed cheese food
  • Cheese in a CO2 can
  • Pepsi Max Cease Fire, designed—no joke—to put out the fire in your mouth caused by spicy Doritos Degree Burn

A lot of this—actually, all of it—is junk. Yet, what about all the “health food” we now have because of modern technology? Certainly, we’re better off because of that, right? You don’t even have to visit a specialty health store to find most of the following:

  • Margarine fortified with omega-3 fatty acids
  • Breads and milk pumped full of extra vitamins and minerals
  • Soda that tastes sweet but has zero calories
  • Multivitamins that provide us with ten times the amount of the vitamins and minerals we need each day
  • Lab-designed meal replacement shakes for any diet you happen to be on

Much of the food people buy these days is so loaded with preservatives that it will never even rot! With all of this high-tech food available, it seems like we should be healthier than ever. You can walk into the health section of any bookstore and find hundreds of options promising to solve all your problems with the latest and greatest diet approach.

And yet rates of obesity in adults and children continue to grow, raising the risk of serious diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers. It’s said that our generation might be the first that fails to outlive its parents.

What Happened?

Food used to be simple. Tens of thousands of years ago, before the development of agriculture, our ancestors hunted and gathered. Nuts, legumes, roots, fruits, vegetables, meat when it was available, and little else. There were no artificial preservatives, and most ways of preserving food had not been discovered. We ate what we acquired quickly, before it could rot or be stolen by another human being or animal, because the next meal was rarely a sure thing. We didn’t know what protein, fats, or carbohydrates were, much less antioxidants and free radicals.

But with all these seeming disadvantages compared to what we have at our disposal today, there was one huge factor our ancestors had going for them that we no longer have: Back then, if a food tasted good, it was almost certainly good for you. In fact, that’s precisely why it tasted good. If you’ve never thought much about evolution, it’s worth taking a second to understand how beautifully elegant the process is.

A TWO-MINUTE LESSON IN EVOLUTION

According to the theory of evolution, our bodies evolved over millions of years to thrive on the foods and in the environmental conditions that existed at the time. Without getting into anything remotely technical, how does this work?

Let’s think about it. A child with, say, a nut allergy, who lived in an area where nuts were one of the only available foods, didn’t stand a good chance of surviving to adulthood. And so he could not pass his genes (and a predisposition to nut allergies) on to his own children. Another child, whose body thrived on nuts, however, would more likely grow up strong, father children who also liked nuts, and live happily ever after. (Until he is old and slow and eaten by a tiger whose body thrives on people.)

Over time (and I mean a long time), genes that did well with the available foods propagated throughout the tribe, while those that were incompatible with the available food were systematically removed from the gene pool, as their carriers died before they could pass those genes on.

For the millions of years during which most of our evolution has occurred, fat and sugar were scarce. Fast-forward to the present day and acquiring fat and sugar is as easy as swinging by 7-Eleven.

It works the same with tastes. Why do fat and sugar taste so good? Because they’re incredibly valuable sources of energy! Fat contains more than twice the calories (by weight) of other nutrients, and sugar can quickly be converted to usable energy. Back before your next meal was such a sure thing, if you had the rare opportunity to consume a large amount of either fat or sugar, you’d have been crazy not to take it.

And so natural selection rewarded those who loved the taste of fat and sugar. People who sought out these valuable nutrients had an advantage over those who enjoyed the taste of, say, nutrient-poor tree bark, and were more likely to live long enough to procreate. And so in this manner, the genes for craving fat and sugar were passed down for thousands of generations.

You see, there’s nothing inherently bad about fat and sugar. But here’s the catch: for the millions of years during which most of our evolution has occurred, fat and sugar were scarce. Fast-forward to the present day, and acquiring fat and sugar is as easy as swinging by 7-Eleven. While a buffalo kill might have been a rare treat back in the day, you can now get a Big Mac and a Coke from a McDonald’s drive-through for five bucks. What’s more, it used to be just about impossible to eat too much fat and sugar: they were only available as parts of whole foods, not extracted and concentrated as they are today. (There was certainly no way to extract high-fructose corn syrup from corn.)

Taking in 30 grams of fat meant eating a large piece of meat or a whole bunch of nuts, which filled up your stomach to the point that it signaled to your brain “Enough, stop eating!” But nowadays, you can get almost that much fat in 2 tablespoons (28 ml) of oil, which takes up little room in your stomach and does nothing to trigger a “that’s-enough-stop-stuffing-your-face” response.

The same goes for sugar. When we eat more sugar than we can use right away, most of it gets stored as fat. This wasn’t a big problem when the only way to get sugar was to eat whole fruit—there’s only so much fruit you can eat before you’re full. But now we can simply drink sugar-rich juice, skipping the fiber that serves to fill us up. (Remember, we evolved in the presence of whole foods, so every edible part of the food serves our bodies in ways scientists still don’t fully understand.)

In the worst case, we now consume sugar in ultra-concentrated syrups, such as those found in most sodas and almost any packaged dessert, and in our breakfast cereal, bread, muffins, bagels, salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce, pasta sauce, applesauce, yogurt, soup, pretzels, chicken strips, and sports drinks—oh yeah, and in our medicine. And we wonder why we’re getting fat.

What Else Is Wrong?

Highly processed oils, refined sugars, and dairy products (more on this later) are what I believe to be the biggest culprits in the terribly unhealthy standard American diet. But that’s not to say they’re the only problems.

This article is about solutions, not problems, so I’ll mention these other issues only briefly here to give some rationale for the recommendations that follow throughout the first half of this article.

1. Over-processing. We’ve already talked about processing as it pertains to extracted oils and added refined and concentrated sugars, but the problem is a lot more pervasive than that. Grains are one of the most common refined foods. Wheat, for example, is usually stripped of the fibrous, nutrient-rich bran before being ground into the pure white flour that makes so many of our breads, bagels, and pastas—similar to white rice, which is brown before processing. The removed fiber and nutrients are what are supposed to fill us up to regulate how much we can eat. Without them, though, we get no such stop sign.

Many “foods” are nothing but assemblies of many not-quite-foods that have been processed and combined with artificial ingredients. Look at the ingredients in most popular snack foods or sodas. There’s nothing there that’s even close to a whole food!

And it’s not just traditional factories that churn out foods with the nutrients removed. Often, it happens before our fruits and vegetables even leave the farm.

2. Low-nutrient produce. It used to be that if you wanted a tomato in the winter, you were out of luck. Not anymore! Now, you can get just about any food, just about any time. Food is shipped in from all over the world, often from a farm dedicated to producing that single food and nothing else.

Do the tomatoes you get in the winter taste like those you get from your local farmers’ market in the summer? Of course not. The ones trucked in over the winter are usually pink, not red, and they’re as devoid of flavor as they are color. And you know what that means they’re also devoid of? Nutrition. From the time a food is picked to the time it arrives on your plate, several weeks often pass. For the food to be ripe when you eat it, farmers need to pick that fruit before it’s ready to be picked, which means it hasn’t had the time to develop the nutrition (or flavor) that it would if it were to be consumed shortly after picking.

What’s more, much factory farming happens in a way that, over time, depletes the nutrients in the soil. Although sustainable farming practices ensure that crops are rotated year-to-year and grown in a manner and quantity that won’t deplete the soil over time, much of what we see in grocery stores is not grown that way. The result is that with each and every passing season, the fruits and vegetables we consume are becoming less nutritious and mineral-rich. A 2004 study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, examined the nutrient content of forty-three food crops and found that levels of six nutrients and minerals, including protein, iron, calcium, and potassium, had significantly declined between 1950 and 1999, concluding that tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content may be to blame.

3. Reductionist fixes to nutrition problems aren’t always the solution. At the heart of many of the problems with our food today is the idea that nutrients are nutrients and vitamins are vitamins, and it doesn’t matter in what context we get them as long as we get them somehow. If we need more vitamin E in our diet, just add it to the milk! If it’s iron you seek, put it in the bread! Don’t want to eat any food that’s vitamin-rich? Just take a multivitamin.

It’s only recently that we’re coming to understand how remarkably complex food—and the way our bodies handle it—is. As stated previously, humans evolved to eat the foods in our environment—the whole foods, not simply the juice or the syrup or the oil of those foods.

We depend on the precise, not-fully-understood interactions between our bodies and all the components that make up a food. We can’t simply take the omega-3s from one food, put them in another, and expect our bodies to accept that. This fallacy of scientific reductionism, first pointed out to me by Michael Pollan in his manifesto In Defense of Food, explains why with so much supposed “health food” out there, as a society we’re only getting more unhealthy. As Pollan wrote in 2007 in the New York Times:

… people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed … that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, “What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect?” One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce—compounds like beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc.—are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules … vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta-carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

4. Environmental and economic concerns. It’s no secret that much of the world lives in a manner that, with regard to our planet and natural resources, is unsustainable. When most people think of environmental problems, they picture smoke-belching factories obscuring the sky, toxic chemicals being dumped into streams, and gas-guzzling SUVs packed onto highways during rush hour.

What this picture of environmental destruction is missing, however, is the effect of our food choices. In reality, factory farming, particularly livestock production, is among the leading causes of our environmental woes, producing more greenhouse gases, for example, than all forms of transportation combined! Consider these facts about the effect on the environment of livestock alone, taken from Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2006, which determined that the livestock industry is one of the two or three most significant causes of serious environmental problems, on local and global scales and all scales in between (the term livestock, as used here, comprises all farmed animals, including pigs, birds raised for their meat and eggs, and dairy cows):

  • The expansion of livestock production is a major contributor to deforestation. For example, 70 percent of Latin American land that used to be Amazon forest is now pasture for livestock, and much of the other 30 percent is used for crops to feed this livestock.
  • The livestock sector produces 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector.
  • In the United States, livestock account for 55 percent of erosion and sediment, 37 percent of pesticide use, and half of antibiotic use.
  • Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface, which was once habitat for wildlife, is now used for livestock production—this is just one factor that leads the study’s authors to suggest “the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity.”

It’s pretty clear what a tremendous mess we human beings have gotten ourselves and our planet into. Without even touching ethical issues regarding the decision to eat animals, we’ve identified major problem areas—namely, our health and that of our environment, whose poor condition is largely the result of our food choices.

If we agree on the problems our current food situation has caused, let’s now turn our attention to what we can do about it.

What’s the Solution?

Yes, fortunately, there is one. The answer to our diet problems is remarkably simple, and it’s the common thread that explains why so many wildly different diets work.

Let’s take a look at a few popular diets to see whether you can identify what that common element is. (Note: When I use the word “diet” throughout this article, I usually mean “a way of eating,” as opposed to the state of being on a diet, in which one temporarily cuts calories or radically changes what he or she eats, usually to quickly lose weight and gain it all back when the diet ends.)

THE PALEO DIET

The Paleo diet is based on the same evolutionary arguments we’ve talked about here. The apparent goal of the Paleo diet is to replicate what we ate during most of our evolution, but given that certain Paleo foods are extinct or significantly different than they were during most of our evolutionary history, some sacrifices have to be made. (For example, selective agriculture has made many of the fruits we eat now much juicier and less fibrous than they were previously.)

Paleo focuses on high-protein and low-carbohydrate foods. Approved foods include meat from wild animals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and tubers. No grains or dairy are allowed because those came about relatively late in our existence.

It’s pretty clear what a tremendous mess we human beings have gotten ourselves and our planet into.

And it works for athletes, at least in the short run, as evidenced by the popularity of Paleo among competitive athletes, most notably the CrossFit crowd.

THE RAW AND FRUITARIAN DIETS

Then there’s raw foodism. Here, the idea is that cooking our food is a recent enough technological advance that our bodies haven’t yet had a chance to adapt to the change. Therefore, our bodies are designed to eat foods in their natural, raw state. Certain enzymes that help with digestion, along with other nutrients, are denatured during the cooking process, rendering them ineffective at their jobs. Some raw foodists include raw dairy and meat products in their diet.

Raw’s cousin, fruitarianism (similar to the 30 Bananas a Day or 80/10/10 diets, which center on eating primarily simple carbohydrates and low amounts of protein and fat), focuses more on fruit than vegetables. The diet is composed of about 80 percent carbohydrates, includes no animal products whatsoever, and is entirely raw in its purest form. And Michael Arnstein, the most visible leader of the movement, has won the Vermont 100-miler and placed highly in the Leadville 100, one of the most famous ultramarathons in the world.

THE PLANT-BASED DIET

And of course, there’s veganism, which I usually call “plant-based,” because this article is about eating for health more than it is about ethics. But even within the realm of veganism, there are differing versions.

Ultramarathon great Scott Jurek eats a traditionally balanced vegan diet (even if he consumes many more calories than the average vegan to fuel his 100-plus mile races). Then there’s Brendan Brazier, Thrive author and former pro Ironman triathlete, who also eats plant-based foods, but focuses more on raw foods. The diets of both of these athletes include a relatively large amount of calories from fat, probably in the range of 25 percent.

But there’s another version of the vegan diet that has gained a ton of traction, thanks largely to the 2011 runaway hit documentary Forks Over Knives. The documentary is based on the work of T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., author of The China Study, and Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., which links consumption of meat and dairy products to cancer and heart disease and advocates a “plant-based, whole foods diet”. The diet is exactly what it sounds like—no animal products and no processed foods. Campbell and Esselstyn do not consider oils to be whole foods, for example, because in nature they only exist as parts of other foods, and so they advocate cooking with vegetable broth instead of even the olive oil that so many of us have considered healthy for so long.

THE COMMON THREAD

Clearly, the diets we’ve looked at are strikingly different on the surface, especially when you consider the wide variation in the ratios of protein, carbohydrate, and fat to which the different diets adhere. But have you noticed the fundamental element that they all share?

What they have in common is that each one of them focuses on whole foods, while avoiding processed foods and dairy. If you took those few steps and made no other changes to your current diet, you’d almost certainly experience major improvements in your health, as long as your food sources are varied to ensure you get a good mix of vitamins and nutrients.

Yes, making your diet healthy is really that simple.

How Should We Define “Whole Foods”?

I have yet to see a perfect definition of a “whole food.” The problem is that for any food to go from its source (e.g., the ground, a tree, a stalk) to our plates requires some amount of processing, if you define the term loosely enough (e.g., sautéing or baking is a form of processing). And so most definitions rely on phrases like “processed as little as possible,” which, of course, then leads to all kinds of questions as to what is meant by “as little as possible.”

Let’s not get hung up on the precise dividing line between whole foods and processed foods—there is no such line that everyone agrees on. Instead, the degree of processing is a continuum; the question should be, “How processed is it?” not “Is it processed?” Another important consideration is how much the food changes as it is processed. This is not the same consideration of how the food looks when it reaches our plates—tofu, for example, looks nothing like the soybeans from which it comes, but much of the integrity of the soybean remains in tofu. (Let’s put aside the question of whether soy is healthy for now—we’ll talk about that in chapter 3.)

Although I can’t give you a precise test for distinguishing whole from processed foods, most foods are so far to one end of the spectrum or the other that you can fairly easily classify them as belonging to one group or the other (there are a few close calls, but not all that many). For instance:

  • Baked potatoes? Sure, they’re a whole food. Potato chips? No.
  • A smoothie made from blended, whole fruits is still whole; fruit juice that a machine separates from the pulp isn’t.
  • Corn kernels cut away from the cob are still whole, corn syrup is not.
  • And yes, meat is a whole food. Slim Jims are not.

What About Dairy?

We humans love our cows’ milk. We’re taught that it makes us strong and that all the calcium is good for our bones. But milk is not a health food. Remember when we talked about evolution, and how we evolved to thrive on the foods that were present in our environment? By that argument, I’ve got to admit that I don’t think meat in small quantities—say, as a side dish for a few meals a week—is inherently unhealthy. (I’ll talk about my reasons for choosing not to eat meat later in the chapter.) Dairy, though, is another story altogether.

Female mammals evolved to produce the perfect food for supporting a newborn for his or her first year of life—we know it as milk, of course. If a woman carried a gene (technically, several genes) for producing good milk, it increased the chances that her children (who would likely carry that same gene) were well-fed, lived through adulthood, and reproduced to pass on the gene. And so, just like we talked about before, over millions of years, milk gradually became the perfect food for infants.

Infants. Infants, I should point out, of the same species.

Humans didn’t often drink cows’ milk for most our evolution; it only came about with the development of agriculture 8,000 years or so ago. It seems unlikely that in a relatively short time period, humans could have evolved to thrive on, much less need, cows’ milk. What’s more, humans continue to drink cows’ milk through adulthood and for our entire lives, making us the only species to drink milk beyond infancy.

Nature designed human milk for baby humans and cows’ milk for baby cows. Cows’ milk is formulated by nature to help an infant cow gain a thousand pounds in its first year. Should we be surprised, then, that when humans consume dairy, it’s linked to certain reproductive cancers? Consider, for example, a 2001 Harvard Physician’s Health Study that examined more than 20,000 U.S. male physicians and determined that those who consumed more than 2.5 servings of dairy products each day had a 34 percent higher risk of prostate cancer than those who consumed less than half a serving of dairy each day. Or a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found that women who drank more than one glass of milk per day (regardless of fat content) had double the ovarian cancer risk of those who drank one glass or less each day.

Humans continue to drink cows’ milk through adulthood and for our entire lives, making us the only species to drink milk beyond infancy.

Many of us, Americans especially, grew up with the idea that cows’ milk is the perfect food for humans, thanks largely to wildly successful advertising campaigns by the dairy industry. Who doesn’t remember the milk mustache ads? Or the “Milk—It does a body good” slogan? In reality, it may do just the opposite.

So, Why Plant-Based?

First, let’s get clear about the language. Throughout this article, you’ll see me refer to this diet as “plant-based.” What exactly does it mean?

To some, a “plant-based diet” means a vegan diet—no animal products, not even honey. To others, it simply means a diet that’s “based” on plants, as in, you can eat a little cheese now and then or even a hamburger once in a while, as long as the vast majority of what you eat is plants.

You could choose either definition and still benefit tremendously from the information and recipes in this article. No Meat Athlete is about health, not ethics, and it’s my opinion that, all else being equal, two people eating plant-based diets using the two different definitions above won’t notice dramatic differences when they compare their health to one another’s. Thus, when I say “plant-based,” I’m intentionally being vague. If you want it to mean strict veganism, that’s great. If you want it to mean vegan, but you’ll still eat ice cream once a month and put real butter on your popcorn, that works, too. Ethically, there’s an enormous difference; I don’t deny that, and I’m proud to call myself a true vegan. But in terms of your health, the two diets are nearly identical.

Is it vegetarianism, or simply the tendencies of vegetarians to partake in other healthy behaviors, that accounts for the lower incidence of disease and longer lifespans correlated with vegetarian diets?

Is a plant-based diet healthier than an omnivorous one? That’s a tough one. In my mind, there’s no question that a well-planned, plant-based diet is healthier than the standard American one. But how about compared to a whole-foods diet that happens to include a small amount of meat, eggs, and just a bit of dairy?

Many of the so-called “Blue Zones” cultures (in the pockets of the world that produce the largest number of people who live to be 100 years old) eat mostly plant-based diets, with only a tiny amount of pork or dairy every now and then.

To me, it’s not clear that one diet is necessarily healthier than the other, when you’re talking about a very, very small amount of animal products—like less than 5 percent of total calories. In that case, I’m fine to call it a tie until further research is done. I just know that moderation doesn’t work for everyone, and in my own experience, passing up a McDonald’s is way easier for me now that I’m 100 percent vegan than it was when I tried to eat healthily but still at some animal products. And as a result, I make so much more of my own food than I used to and eat so many more fruits and vegetables than before. For that aspect, being 100 percent vegan works best for me.

Four Compelling Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet

The rather equivocal viewpoints I’ve expressed in this chapter might have come as a surprise—aren’t vegans supposed to defend their diet choices more adamantly than this?

Yes, many of us do, often with good reason. But if I can’t honestly say with 100 percent certainty that a plant-based diet is healthier than a whole-foods–based omnivorous one, or that it offers a decided advantage for sports, I’m not going to make those claims.

But here’s the thing—I don’t need to. Even without taking a side in the debate about which is better, there are so many ways a plant-based diet makes me fitter, faster, and happier. Following are my reasons for choosing to eat a vegan diet.

1. Ethical considerations. The single most important factor behind my decision to be vegan is the fact that I cannot feel at peace about supporting the way tens of billions (not a typo, and not an exaggeration either) of thinking, feeling animals are treated each year on their way from birth to our plates.

Although I won’t go further about ethical issues here, in the resources section at the end of this article you’ll find a few films, websites, and books worth checking out if you’d like to learn more about how food animals are treated. (For many vegetarians, improving the way animals are treated becomes their biggest source of inspiration to make their diet change last.)

2. Recent science linking plant-based diets to long-term disease prevention. We hear so much about which diets are healthy and which are not. What are we supposed to believe?

And then how much research is enough? How do we then make recommendations? It’s one thing to learn about nutritional sciences and another to formulate recommendations for groups of people.

Fortunately, vegetarians as a group have been studied for decades. In fact, it’s no stretch to argue that more research has been done on the vegetarian diet than any other specific eating pattern in the United States, and it’s long been noted in scientific studies that vegetarians tend to live longer and experience a lower incidence of disease than the general population. Can we say then, that a plant-based diet is the key to health? Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple.

In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables than the general population, vegetarians also eat fewer foods containing saturated fat and cholesterol, and they tend to smoke less and exercise more. But (and there’s always a “but”), we’ve learned that all of these other factors, on their own and apart from vegetarianism are beneficial in reducing chronic disease and increasing longevity.

Is it vegetarianism, or simply the tendencies of vegetarians to partake in other healthy behaviors, that accounts for the lower incidence of disease and longer lifespans correlated with vegetarian diets? Researchers, the smart bunch they are, had the same question. In particular, researchers affiliated with Seventh-Day Adventist universities found themselves in a unique position to study this issue. You see, they knew that most followers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church don’t smoke, they exercise regularly, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. And about half of them, in the United States, are vegetarian. See where this is going?

These researchers created the Adventist Health Study, which followed 34,000 Adventists and recorded their habits, asking questions about how often they exercised, which vegetables they ate and how often, and which diseases they developed.

Much of the evidence about the benefits of vegetarianism comes from this group. Hundreds of subsequent studies have been done using the information gathered from these 34,000 people, who are nearly identical in habits, except that some of them eat meat and others do not (only a small percentage of this group is vegan). Researchers are now hard at work looking at a second Adventist Health Study, this time with a cohort of 125,000 people! Further, the percentage of Adventists eating a completely vegan diet has increased significantly since the time when the first study was done; this development allows researchers to draw conclusions not just about the effect a meat-free diet has on health, but also of a diet completely free of all animal products.

At the time this article was published, only a few research articles based on the study have come out in peer-reviewed journals. These preliminary results, as presented by lead researcher Gary Fraser, M.D., Ph.D., include the following:

  • A Diabetes Care study published in 2009 showed that risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity was greatest among non-vegetarians and lowest for vegans. Risk increased incrementally based on how often animal products were consumed. This remained true even after factors like physical activity and body mass index (BMI) were controlled for.
  • A 2012 study concluded that vegan diets confer the lowest risk for overall cancer compared to other dietary patterns. Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, which include dairy and eggs, but not flesh, were also found to be protective, but vegans, again, had the lowest risk for cancer compared with vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
  • Finally, a definitive statement on vegetarianism comes from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. Although we’ve looked at just a few studies here, members of this organization consider all major nutrition studies, and hence provide an informed perspective. The statement from 2009 is worth quoting at length, considering the academy is not widely considered to be a pro-vegetarian group:

It is the position of … the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes … The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.

Another by-product that I didn’t expect of going vegetarian was that within the first few months of doing so, I was eating dozens of foods that I had never tried before.

3. Food variety. Another by-product that I didn’t expect of going vegetarian was that within the first few months of doing so, I was eating dozens of foods that I had never tried before.

The average American probably doesn’t eat more than a few dozen foods each year (ignoring, for the sake of argument, nutritionally worthless varieties of junk food). It’s so easy to fall into a rut of grilling chicken breast, accompanying it with a starch like potatoes, rice, or pasta, and maybe throwing in a vegetable as an afterthought. I know because I ate this way for many years, thinking I ate about as healthily as one could.

But when you go plant-based, you need to get outside of your box and explore. Sure, there’s no rule that says omnivores can’t eat foods such as quinoa, kubocha squash, kale, rainbow chard, celeriac, and millet—but how many of them actually do?

4. Environmental benefits. In light of the statistics on the environmental effect of livestock production presented earlier in the chapter, it’s easy to see how a plant-based diet can do more for the environment than almost any other individual choice. Aside from the vote with your dollar that you cast when you choose not to participate in that industry, the decision to go vegan reduces your indirect consumption of water and energy as well.

• On average, a person who doesn’t eat meat or dairy indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet, according to National Geographic.

• The amount of energy required from fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of animal protein for human consumption is 25.4 calories, according to Cornell University Science News. To produce an equivalent amount of plant protein, it takes less than one-tenth that amount, 2.2 calories.

It’s tough to argue that the environment (and those of us who live in it) wouldn’t be a whole lot better off if more people chose a vegan diet. But even if you don’t go all the way vegan—say, you go vegetarian or pescetarian (vegetarian or vegan, plus fish), or have a few meatless days each week, you’ll still dramatically reduce your environmental footprint versus when you eat a traditional Western diet.

If you’ve made it this far, it’s a safe bet you’re on board.

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