- Area: Humanities
- Program: Composition
- Type of Writing: Essay (Argumentative)
- Course Level: 2000
- Year: 2017
- Paper ID: H.C.E.2.2.8
Why Eat Animals and Their Secretions; Plant-Based as a Healthy Dietary Option
The body can consume a variety of foods healthily and efficiently if there are no predispositions stopping it from doing so. In the book “The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability”, Lierre Keith, an ex-vegetarian, food activist and environmentalist, states, “We had two evolutionary edges to see us through: our opposable thumbs and our omnivorous digestion. We had the capacity to manipulate tools and we had bodies equipped with both the instincts and the digestion to handle a range of foods” (139). Although the body can process a range from plants to animal products, this doesn’t mean an omnivorous diet is the only sustainable, healthy diet.
As defined in an article in International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism “A range of vegetarian diets exist, all of which are typically plant-based and are often classified on the exclusion or inclusion of animal, or animal derived products. Vegan, pesco-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian (LOV) diets are examples of vegetarian-based diets” (Craddock 212). Continuing with the many benefits of this diet, “Diets of this nature are typically higher in oligo and polysaccharides, fiber, fruits, vegetables, antioxidants and phytochemicals while lower in saturated fat and cholesterol compared with omnivorous diets” (212). Continuing with a widely argued concern within this community, “Despite these promising notions, there remains concern that a suboptimal vegetarian diet may increase risk for micronutrient deficiencies” (213). Although this study is focused on physical performance and fitness as a plant-based individual, it brings up many of the main concerns and main benefits of this diet.
A plant-based diet is an all-encompassing term used to define a diet of predominantly plant foods, this includes the strictest version of the term, vegan. An omnivorous diet is a term used to describe a diet of plants, meats and animal products. Plant-based vs. omnivorous diet is a topic of great dispute. While there are multiple economic, environmental, ethical, and disease considerations, it always comes back around to health and nutrients. Although many people argue that the body needs a consumption of meat and animal products to stay healthy, a plant-based diet is just as healthy because all essential nutrients can be found in a diet of balanced plant foods, fortified foods, and a few supplements, many of the nutrients plants don’t provide are synthesized by the body, and it has been a proven way to reduce risk of many illnesses.
In an article titled, “Trendy Vegan Diets Can Wreck a Child’s Health” Fernandez, a Daily Mail journalist, covers one of the main concerns of a plant-based diet, vitamin B12, concentrating on pregnancy and breastfeeding. “Vegan mothers who breastfeed also need to be aware that their children can develop vitamin B12 deficiency between two and 12 months because of the lack of reserves in their body at birth, even if the mother is not showing any signs of deficiency herself” (n.p.). Vitamin B12 is only one of the key nutrients that an expecting mothers lack could result in adverse effects on herself, her pregnancy, and the baby. Protein metabolism, formation of red blood cells, and maintaining the central nervous system function are some of it’s important roles. A deficiency is often hard to detect, especially in adults. Storages of vitamin B12 could take years to run out. Deficiency would mean possible anemia and fatigue along with longer lasting effects on children and pregnant women. While there is much risk when a child or breastfeeding mother is plant-based, the plant-based diets that are putting individuals at risk are not well planned, and individuals practicing inadequate plant-based diets are often misinformed and uneducated in nutrients, and the even more important role they play in infancy and childhood. These concerns can be remedied with some good education, food variation, fortified foods, and supplementation.
Furthermore, Fernandez gives information about a plant-based diet in children. “A lack of nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and highquality protein can lead to ‘irreversible damage’ to children’s nervous systems or malnutrition” (n.p.). Early in life it is very important to have a high intake of fats, carbs and proteins because the body is growing and children are active. With most plant-based diets carbs aren’t much of an issue. Proteins and fats require more food varieties and special planning to meet requirements, and even more so to get a sufficient amount for a growing child. Essential vitamins and minerals are also very important to insure proper function and formation of a growing body. Many of these micronutrients play a key role in the nervous system, muscular growth, vision, blood, and bones. Being suggested that malnutrition is a risk factor for a child on a plant-based diet implies that they don’t have a variety of foods and supplementation to assist meeting nutritional needs. However, malnutrition can be a risk factor for any child on a typical American diet, with the abundance of processed foods, meats, and animal products there is a growing lack in antioxidants, potassium, fiber, etc. and malnutrition is defined as bad or lack of proper nutrition. There is an abundance of these nutrients found in a typical plant-based diet, one example being; a vegan taco bowl full of quinoa, tofu, potatoes, beans and spices topped with a little fortified nutritional yeast, and fortified dairy free plain yogurt, paired with a little piece of dark chocolate for dessert exceeds most omnivorous meals in more than just the nutrients listed above. For this special population it can take better planning, some expert advice for special concerns, fortified foods, and supplements to make sure everyone stays healthy on a plant-based diet, but it is not extremely difficult to obtain, as it has been suggested.
Next, Thorning et al., members of the department of nutrition, exercise and sports from University of Copenhagen discuss the importance of dairy in the diet in the article, “Milk and Dairy Products Good or Bad for Human Health?”
Milk and dairy products contain a number of nutrients that are required for building strong bones in childhood and for their maintenance during adulthood with the aim to reduce osteoporosis and bone fractures in older age The European Commission has concluded that protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin K are necessary for maintaining normal bones. With the exception of vitamin D, these nutrients are all present in significant amounts in milk and dairy products. Osteoporosis has been described as a ‘paediatric disease with geriatric consequences’ as low milk, and hence, low mineral intake during childhood and adolescence has been associated with significantly increased risk of osteoporotic fractures in middle and older age, particularly in women. (3)
Many building blocks of a healthy body, particularly bones, are formed in adolescence. Humans hit peek bone density around age 25-30 and may begin to lose bone mass after this point. Many nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin K in abundance in adolescence do reduce risk of osteoporosis and other bone disorders later in life, however, milk and dairy products are not the only sources of these nutrients. Low mineral intake during childhood and adolescence does increase risk of bone disorders, lack of dairy does not. Other concerns surface, mainly in women, since there are many factors throughout their lifetime that can contribute to a higher risk of low bone mineral density. These include energy, therefore nutrient restrictions, lack of weight bearing, bone building activities, and hormones, especially while taking certain birth controls and in menopause. A healthy mix of leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans cover all the bases, but it is believed to be easier to obtain these nutrients through dairy products because it has been marketed this way for years. An easy serving of these nutrients, excluding vitamin D, in plant foods would be a simple veggie burger made of grains, beans, nuts, seeds and greens. Vitamin D is also lacking in a plant-based diet, so in times of less sun exposure a vitamin D supplement and fortified foods are a necessity, but also readily available, with the abundance of fortified foods such as plant milks, cereals, tofu, etc. there are many great options.
To cover a wider ranged and more legitimate concern, in the study titled, “Food and Nutrient Intake and Nutritional Status of Finnish Vegans and NonVegetarians” Elorinne, a professor at University of Eastern Finland, PhD holder, with a concentration in nutrition, records these results, “Recent studies have shown that vegans face nutritional problems with respect to vitamin B12, hydroxyvitamin D, iodine, selenium, and long-chain n-3 fatty acid status” (2). Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that needs to be supplemented in a plant-based diet, along with vitamin D. Vitamin B12 is a bacterium found in the colon and is then transferred to dirt, or untreated water, where the animals get their food and drink, and vitamin D is synthesized by the skin in sunlight, along with the skin of a few vegetables like mushrooms, and of course, animals. Many other nutrients in this list come from sources like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Although meat packs these nutrients up in a convenient fleshy package, they are essentially recycled nutrients found in plants or synthesized by the animal’s body. The reality of modern day is that all dirt and bacteria found in food or water is treated and killed and people don’t get as much sunlight due to busy schedules and the abundance of indoor activities. This means supplements and fortified foods are a necessity to obtain a healthy plant-based lifestyle. These options are now becoming more readily available and cheaper due to the widespread nutrient deficiencies through the country along with the growing popularity of plant-based diets, and supplement use in athletes.
Equally important, in the article “Plan Healthful Diets” in Today’s Dietitian, Messina, a registered dietician, states another concern. “The issue in vegan diets is iron bioavailability, since the nonheme iron in plant foods is often bound to phytates, resulting in poor absorption…Vegan diets often are lower in zinc compared with diets that include animal foods, however, and zinc from plant foods has lower bioavailability” (42). This statement suggests that vegans are at risk of a nutrient deficiency in these minerals. Meat may be a convenient way to obtain these nutrients but, this does not suggest that it is the only healthy way to obtain them. Being aware of these possible concerns is key. To differentiate, heme iron is found in the flesh of animals and is shown to be more readily absorbed by the body than nonheme iron, or iron found in plant foods. The simple answer to nutrient concerns is a supplement, however there are an abundance of plant based irons and zincs. Food preparation often assists in nutrient absorption as well as pairing non-heme iron from plant foods with a little Vitamin C, such as lemon juice, to aid absorption (Marino n.p.). Iron is found in lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans, quinoa, fortified foods, rice etc while zinc is found in beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, oats, nutritional yeast, etc. These are an abundance in any well-planned plant-based diet. Most meat substitutes are made of tofu and tempeh while lentils, beans, rice and quinoa are staples for many foods from tacos to veggie burgers. Also, studies have correlated negative effects of high amounts of heme iron to risk of stroke, heart disease, and certain cancers (Waynjek n.p.). However, the pattern may be caused by a higher intake of animal products, therefore higher intake of cholesterol and saturated fats.
Whereas, in the book “Veganomics: The Suprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, From the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom” the author, Cooney records, “One small-scale study discovered that nearly half of current vegetarians experienced temporary health issues after they ditched meat. Anemia was the most common problem; nearly a quarter of those in the study had been diagnosed as anemic” (n.p.). This study, among stories of unsuccessful plant-based attempts, has no background information on who was studied, medical predispositions of this group, and dietary choices. Oreos are vegan but if one were to rely on them for nutrition, they would suffer from far more than anemia. Many plant-based food options lack heavily in essential nutrients. Going from the convenience of an omnivores diet, one may be more inclined to go for the processed foods, treats and sweets. While Iron is an abundance in plant foods, and food preparation, and Vitamin C aids in bioavailability, being aware of recommendations and personal intake, as well as a slow transition is suggested because switching to a plant-based diet will also require changing some habits. This transition involves a lack of convenience foods, and the convenience foods that are available often lack in many essential nutrients. Finding proper food varieties and preparation is essential to staying healthy and successful on this diet.
At the same time, Macronutrients are an area of concern on a plant-based diet. In the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition an article titled, “Vegan Diets: Practical Advice For Athletes and Exercisers.” Rogerson, a course leader at Sheffiled Hallam University within the faculty of health and wellbieing, covers the overwhelming protien concern. “Plant-based protein sources are often incomplete, missing important essential amino acids” (3). Protein is a macronutrient, and an essential part of the diet. Often the first question asked when a person descovers another is plant-based is, “where do you get your protein?” While, many Americans on an omnivorous diet get much more protein than they need, it has been shown to have adverse effects. An excess in any macronutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) will result in storage, so although protiens main goal is to repair tissue and aid in functions of the body, what the body doesn’t need will be stored as fat. Animal protien is a complete source and includes dispensible and indispensible amino acids. There are 20 amino acids; 9 indispensible meaning they need to obtained through diet, and 11 dispensible meaning the body is able to synthisize them. To be considered a complete source of protien it must contain all indispensible amino acids, which can all be found in plant foods, but only a few are complete sources (quinoa, fortified foods, spirolina); however, this is no concern as long as a good variety of foods are consumed, all protiens are covered. An example of this is eatting hummus with pitta chips, or chia seeds and almond milk to make chia seed pudding. These foods are often consumed this way anyhow.
From the alleged vitamin B12, protein, and nutrient deficiencies to poor nutrient absorption and higher nutrient requirements in certain populations, to lack of dairy allegedly causing adverse effects, all arguments against a plant based diet come down to the same few micro and macronutrients. As expressed, all concerns are easily remedied with a variety of plant foods, supplementation and fortified foods. Along with these “nutrient concerns” a plant-based diet has many benefits. Most nutrients are an abundance in plant foods or synthesized by the body naturally meaning, humans do not require animal product consumption to live healthily. Daily recommended allowance is still a necessity on this diet and special populations require special care but, many health concerns are also nearly avoided on this diet. Although there are many misinformed individuals within the plant-based community that lead to bad publicity and legitimize health concerns, many heath professionals agree it is a healthy sustainable diet when done properly. Some professionals even go as far to suggest that a plant-based diet is the optimal diet for human consumption.
Furthermore, In the study, “Food and Nutrient Intake and Nutritional Status of Finnish Vegans and Non-Vegetarians.”, Elorinne goes on to highlight some of the benefits of this diet that were observed.
Plasma lipids, antioxidants, and isoflavones Some health-related and nutritional measures were more favorable in vegans than in non-vegetarians. Most importantly, the serum total cholesterol was 20% and LDL cholesterol was 25% lower in the vegan group than in the non-vegetarian group. Furthermore, vegans showed a more favorable fatty acid profile and higher serum concentrations of certain polyphenols compared with the non-vegetarians. These findings were likely the result of high consumption of rapeseed oil and margarines as well as soy and rye products. (9)
Plant-based individuals can obtain amazing health benefits for many reasons, and one is the necessity of adding more plant foods and excluding more processed foods from the diet. A plant-based diet encourages a favorable plasma lipid profile, whereas an abnormal profile, mainly found along with a high consumption of fatty animal products, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The serum total cholesterol, meaning the total HDL or “good” cholesterol, LDL or “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, was found to be 20% lower in plant based individuals in this study while LDL cholesterol was 25% lower in this group, likely for the same reason their plasma lipid profile was more favorable. HDL cholesterol is made by the body by the “good” fats consumed such as avocados. The body does make some LDL cholesterol from trans and saturated fat but much of it is obtained through the consumption of animal products. A plant based diet also encourages a higher intake of antioxidants, isoflavones, and polyphenols which act as reversing agents, slows and repairs effects of aging, oxidative stress, and free radical damage. While vegan treats are becoming more accessible, this diet is a good reason to just get fries at Wendy’s instead of a whole meal. This doesn’t mean no cheat days or fun foods, with the growing popularity of plant-based diets there are more options showing up at fast food restaurants, vegan specific restaurants, and in grocery stores. These include: fresco style burritos at Taco Bell, Vertical Diner in downtown Salt Lake City, and So Delicious Dairy Free ice cream! While exploring the many healthy options is important, exposing one to a variety of new food combinations and preparation is key. This urges people to eat more of those healthy, often avoided foods, and encourages the favorable results found in this study. A great resource for finding food options whether it be eating out or preparing a meal is peta.org.
In this case, Messinas article in Today’s Dietitian gives some helpful advice to anyone one on a plant-based diet. “Unfortunately, many popular vegan websites and books continue to suggest that vegans have lower calcium requirements due to the absence of animal protein from their diets. This may be one reason why many vegans don’t meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium” (41). Plant-based individuals still have the same recommended dietary allowance as an omnivore. In addition, they may need to pay more attention to preparation and bioavailability of nutrients and adjust accordingly as an insurance policy on proper nutrition and healthy amounts of all essential nutrients. Many studies find these nutrients to be more abundant and healthy for the body to process from plants than they are in animal products due to plants lack of acidity and other health concerns such as cholesterol and saturated fat. Studies have also suggested the link between lower bone density and high animal product consumption, mainly milk. This doesn’t mean that anyone excluding these foods from their diet requires less of this, or any other, essential nutrient. The theory is that the high acidity in animal products can cause an uptake of calcium and phosphorus from the bones to buffer the acidity in the system. Therefore, enough calcium would have to be consumed to act as a buffer on top of the recommended dietary allowance when eating animal foods. However, this is not a free pass to lessen the recommended daily allowance of any nutrient.
Now for nutrients; in the article, “Why Vegan? It’s Good for Your Health” in Alive Canada’s Natural Health & Wellness Magazine Dr. Schmit-White states, “Lack of calcium is often a concern for vegans or people considering eliminating dairy from their diet. However, there are plenty of excellent vegan sources of calcium. These include watercress, kale, kidney beans, bok choy, unhulled sesame seeds, and almonds” (4). Plant-based individuals must admit the facts. Fortified foods, well planned varieties, and supplementation is a necessity. Considering how foods are processed and cleaned, and what one’s lifestyle permits, determines the amount of supplementation necessary. Many plant-based individuals are sufficient with a vitamin B12 supplemented year-round while only requiring vitamin D in the winter months, considering they consume a balanced diet that includes adequate amounts of all other essential nutrients. This is not the case for every individual, so tracking nutrients is key for a successful plant based diet. If there is any concern a simple blood test can be administered to reassure all nutrients are taken care of. Without admitting that supplementation can be a necessity, people will continue to practice unhealthy plant-based habits, giving it less credibility as a healthy diet and making it seem less attainable. The knowledge of what, where, and how to get all essential nutrients is an essential to obtaining this lifestyle. There may be an abundance of food options for these nutrients but, food options don’t work unless they are being consumed. A typical omnivorous diet lacks in many of these nutrient dense foods and this is an unhealthy habit that is often carried on into plant-based diets. The lack of this basic knowledge and practice is what ultimately results in many plant-based individuals going back to eating meat and or animal products, obtaining poor health after eliminating animal products, and therefore is where the argument that it is not a healthy dietary option stems from. One cannot survive on solely Oreos and Doritos sweet chili chips, although they are some fun snacks permitted on a plant-based diet.
Indeed there are populations that have a higher risk on a plant-based diet as Tyree et al., some family medical practitoners, cover in an article in the International Journal of Childbirth Education. “Special consideration should be given to populations at risk for nutritional complications. Individuals with metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, severe food allergies, or absorption problems require additional planning and counseling and are beyond the scope of this paper. It is suggested that they be referred to a specialist to develop an individual eating plan” (47). When addressing specific concerns due to any population that may already be at risk of nutrient complications, it is necessary to consult a specialist because misguided nutritional advice, in this case, may lead to serious health concerns. These considerations include the common soy, gluten, and nut allergies that admittedly make a plant-based diet harder to obtain, although some recent cases of a meat allergy caused by an enzyme passed by ticks has surfaced, so individuals with a meat allergy may become a larger risk in the future (“American” n.p.). At risk populations also include individuals with autoimmune and metabolic diseases that may require a higher or regulated consumption of specific nutrients to obtain normal bodily function, and even genetic tendencies of certain populations to poorly absorb certain nutrients. Although it is even less convenient for these populations to obtain the necessary levels of essential nutrients through plant-based foods, there is still an abundance of healthy dietary options along with the availability of supplementation and fortified foods. It is, however, still recommended that it be addressed and counseled by a specialist, assuring a safe, healthy plant-based lifestyle.
Since protien is such a concern for omnivors when they hear of a plant-based diet, in the IDEA Fitness Journal Delmoico, instructor of food saftey and nutrition at The Culinary Institute of America, defines protien and gives some percpective on the issue.
When people talk about protein, they usually mean animal protein: beef, fish, lamb, pork, chicken and dairy products. Yet they usually confuse protein the food with protein the nutrient—which is in all food… “If they ate almonds, they got protein. If they ate hummus and carrot sticks, they got protein. If they ate raspberries, they got protein. Not much in the raspberries, but everything has protein.”… Animal foods, milk and meat have the essential amino acids in proportions that are optimal for humans, so those proteins are called “complete.” Plants also contain all the essential amino acids, but the proportions are somewhat less optimal. We call those proteins “incomplete.” Gardner says the biggest myth about protein consumption is that certain amino acids are lacking in plant foods. (3)
Protein is used to classify flesh as well as amino acids, the macronutrient. These are two very different meanings of this word, although flesh may have protein in it, flesh is not the only source. Amino acids are a nutrient used for tissue repair and as a catalyst for many of the body’s functions. There are trace amounts of protein in any food consumed. Foods have levels of protein ranging from low to neutral to dense. Protein deficiency is not a common occurrence in developed countries. If enough calories are consumed, enough protein is consumed whether the source be fruits, beans, or animal products. The only instance of protein deficiency is in cases of starvation or low caloric consumption. True protein deficiency can lead to swelling of the gut, also known as Kwashiorkor, witnessed in regions that are experiencing famine, as expressed in MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Therefore, photos of starving populations often have kids with large round bellies in them. Not only common in poor populations, but also in cases of eating disorders related to a low intake of calories, or purging, and is accompanied by many other deficiencies. Furthermore, there are dispensable and indispensable amino acids. While there are few sources of complete proteins in plant foods, meaning they contain all indispensable amino acids, just eating a normal mix such as peanut butter on bread or rice and beans is more than sufficient. Dispensable amino acids are synthesized by the body therefore do not need to be obtained through the diet. Protein sources are abundant and readily available in plant foods, they just need to be utilized properly. Although it still isn’t much of a concern with a normal caloric intake.
Along with the many health benefits, a plant-based diet nearly avoids all common health concerns. “Vegetarianism Debate” in Salem Press Encyclopedia, Dr. Driscoll reports, “Recalls of contaminated meat and food-borne outbreaks involving E. coli and Listeria bacteria, as well as the high levels of mercury found in tuna, swordfish, and other seafood, provide some people with the motivation to shift to a plant-based diet. Cases of food poisoning due to contaminated vegetables are rare, although not unheard of” (n.p.). Being common practice to wash hands and surfaces during preparation of animal product based foods, many people are aware of the risk of contamination and food poisoning within preparation alone. The risk of contaminated animal products is even greater with the instances of recalled meat, as well as high levels of toxic chemicals such as mercury found in sea food. As documented in the study, recalls and contamination of plant foods aren’t unheard of, just extremely rare. This does not mean carelessness while washing food, surfaces and tools along with improper preservation of plant based food is permitted, only that even simply while cooking, there is no worry when vegetables are touching and little worry that they have been pre-contaminated. Meat and eggs are a different story. These are only some of many health concerns nearly avoided on a plant-based diet.
Another example is written in the article, “Antibiotic Use and Resistance in Animal Farming: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study on Knowledge and Practices among Farmers in Khartoum, Sudan.” By Eltayb et al., who are all professors and researchers.
In line with the issue of antibiotic resistance, antibiotic toxicity is overlooked. Poor management or improper use of antibiotics might result in residues in animal products, for example, meat and milk. Exposure to antibiotic residues in food or by direct contact can result in acute and chronic toxic effects in addition to resistance development. When antibiotics are accidentally ingested in food as residues, the quantity ingested cannot be measured or monitored but might cause direct health concerns. (2)
Most people have heard of the growing antibiotic concern in medical practice. Antibiotics have been overprescribed in the past but are now being prescribed with more caution. The reason that when one is prescribed an antibiotic, they are instructed to take them until they are gone is that if taken carelessly, bacteria can more easily build up a tolerance to it making them ineffective in the future. Therefore, it is also not advised to take antibiotics when they are not needed. With an abundance of antibiotic resistant bacteria, simple surgeries could again become fatal. A common example of an antibiotic resistant bacteria is MERSA, and it can now be contracted in places such as pools and even hospitals. What most don’t know is that 80% of antibiotic use in the U.S. is within factory farming (Bottemiller n.p.). Animals are now breading this antibiotic resistant bacterium and being fed to the public. As shown in this study, the quantity of antibiotic residues ingested cannot be measured or monitored, but can have adverse effect on health, including toxicity. This alone is a great advocate for the health of a plant-based diet.
Furthermore, in IDEA Fitness Journal Delmoico breaks down the pros and cons of the sources of nutrients.
Putting Protein in Context Since protein is not our only concern, we need to ask what else about a food is beneficial or detrimental. Legumes, seeds and nuts are high in protein and also provide fiber, vitamin E and protective phytochemicals. Beef is high in protein but also saturated fat. Ham is high in protein but also sodium. Choosing the best protein sources should include considering what other nutrients come with them. Gardner points out that if we don’t get enough fiber in our diets, the microbiota (gut bacteria) that can reduce the risk of chronic diseases aren’t fed and don’t thrive. Fiber is found only in plant foods. Legumes, beans and peas are excellent packages of protein and fiber. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), only about 8% of Americans eat legumes daily, but the more beans and peas people eat, the higher their intake of fiber is, as well as their intake of important vitamins and minerals such as folate, magnesium, iron and zinc. (5)
Looking at the significantly low percentage of Americans that consume these fiber rich, nutrient dense plant foods daily, relying on animal products for proteins, vitamins, and minerals, one could assume this is the reason a plant based diet seems unattainable. Many omnivorous advocates also argue that cellulose, a fiber found in plant foods that can’t be broken down by the body but aids in slowing down absorption and helping waste pass, is considered an antinutrient. If these amazing sources of nutrients aren’t utilized, and adversely demonized, then cutting out animal products could be much more of a challenge. Although, when comparing the pros and cons of plant foods and animal products an inequality is revealed. While plant foods provide essential nutrients, they are also rich in fiber and antioxidants, animal products may provide some nutrients, but they are accompanied by higher levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium while lacking in fiber and high levels of antioxidants. Furthermore, the higher consumption of fiber accompanied by plant foods feeds the “good” bacteria in the gut. Studies have shown there to be more bacteria in the gut than cells in the body. The study of the microbiome is a fairly new science, but plant foods have been shown to feed the beneficial, disease fighting bacteria in the gut while fats, processed foods, toxins, sugar, etc. are shown to feed and overwhelm the gut with harmful bacteria that can later lead to health problems. This only shows all foods are not created equally even if the same nutrients are provided.
Moreover, In Today’s Dietitian Messina describes how cooking can increase availability of nutrients in foods.
some food preparation practices can improve both zinc and iron absorption. Both minerals are better absorbed from leavened bread through the fermenting action of either yeast or sourdough. Encouraging vegans to replace some of the grains in their diet with whole grain bread can be an important way to improve mineral status. Toasting nuts and seeds also can improve zinc absorption as can sprouting legumes and grains. (42)
A main concern people have for anyone on a plant-based diet is the bioavailability of the nutrients sourced from plant foods. Not only are there simple solutions such as fortified foods and supplementation where there may be a concern, but there are some tricks in preparing and pairing foods for optimal absorption of nutrients. As mentioned, fermentation, toasting, and sprouting, or pairing a source of vitamin C with a plant source of iron can make these nutrients more bioavailable. Beyond these tips and tricks, the more the body is required to process these nutrients the more efficient it becomes in breaking them down. It is also important to consider, even the animals in factory farms are fed supplements to make up for their strict, unnatural, cheap diets of corn, grain, and soya. In this setting, animals aren’t able to synthesize nutrients such as vitamin D that they would normally get an abundance from in the sunlight. These animals are also unable to obtain simple nutrients from the soil such as vitamin B12, and nutrients found in their normal diets grazing in a field. This means when obtaining these nutrients from animal foods one is obtaining an even further recycled form and supplementation in factory farming being a fairly new practice that is growing rapidly, it is hard to predict possible health concerns the future might hold from this consumption.
On a plant based diet supplements are a must, and this makes them important to understand. In a Q&A Dr. Dog replies, “The daily value (DV) is a percentage, calculated on the average recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults. For each nutrient, there is only one DV for everyone 4 years of age or older. That means the DV does not distinguish between the nutritional needs of an 80-year-old man, a 29-year-old woman, or a 6-year-old child” (3). Supplements are complex, yet not well regulated or widely understood in the United States. It has been established that supplements are a necessity on a plant-based diet, mainly pertaining to vitamin B12, vitamin D, and in some cases, iron. More or less supplementation may be necessary depending on diet variety, health considerations, and lifestyle. When taking supplements versus obtaining nutrients from the diet it is easier to develop a toxicity, mainly with fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, although not extremely common. There are also some less effective, synthetic versions that have been suggested to have a possible toxicity. This should be considered when trying to obtain a supplement. Many supplements contain 500% or more DV of many nutrients to supplement a deficiency not fill a daily requirement. While toxicity is a risk with fat soluble vitamins, water soluble vitamins and some minerals may be so abundant that the excess is excreted resulting in a waste of money. Knowing the importance of seeking out a supplement that is researched by the company helps in the selection process. There are many local nutrition centers with doctors on staff such as Dave’s Health and Nutrition in Salt Lake City. Also, being aware of one’s personal nutritional needs and intake is very important. This is where nutrition software such as an app is used to calculate nutritional needs and intake may be necessary, but one should always consult a specialist with serious concerns. A popular nutrition software among plant-based individuals is chronometer.com because it is an easy to use tool with a well-rounded look at micronutrients and macronutrients.
Finally, registered dietitian Webb states in, “Defending vegan diets – RDs clear up misconceptions about their completeness,” “While vegan diets, if properly planned, are safe, nutritious, and healthful, just like poorly planned omnivore diets they can lead to health problems if followers make poor food choices” (24). Arguments against a plant based diet all seem to have the same few concerns. Protein, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and a few other nutrients. There have been many plant-based individuals that have gotten sick or found the lifestyle to be inconvenient and hard to manage that go back to eating meat. This is usually a result of poor planning and lack of knowledge in nutrients and how to obtain them effectively. This is no different, however, then a poorly planned omnivorous diet. With the abundance of processed convenience foods, this a wide spread concern. The typical American diet is often referred to as an epidemic of Americans being “overfed and starving to death” (“Hungry” n.p.), referring to the lack of nutritional value found in the large quantity of foods consumed in the states. Knowing the options of fortified foods, supplements, food varieties, and meal preparation can help one to plan, execute, and maintain a healthy plant-based diet.
Beyond the “what about protein?” (quinoa, beans, greens, nuts, seeds..) the, “plants have feelings too” and the, “but bacon tho..” some good arguments surface against a plant-based diet being a healthy choice. The validity these arguments come from lack of information coupled with poor nutritional practices of other plant-based individuals, such as the couple who fed their infant nothing but soymilk resulting in serious illness. However, these poor practices should not be made the face of a plant-based diet. Much research is necessary before a commitment like this. From the special populations that require a little extra care and consideration to simply meeting personal nutrition requirements and making this change healthily and attainably. If junk and convenience foods are a main concern, there are many meatless meat, diary free yogurts, cheeses, ice creams, and even pizza options out there, along with boxed mac and cheese, cereals, snack foods, etc. It is still possible to be unhealthy on a plant-based diet so, real food combinations are still a necessity. Plant-based is not an equivalent to health conscious, although it is important to be conscious of nutrient intake on this diet.
A plant-based diet can require hard work and attention to details, but it comes with many benefits. All it takes is a balanced plant based diet, some fortified foods and supplements to make sure to hit all nutrition requirements, plus the body synthesizes more nutrients than most would think, and it has been a proven to reduce risk of many illnesses. The argument that meat and animal products are necessary to maintain good health only holds water in cases of lack of or misinformation. This is not an argument that this lifestyle is for everyone, just that it is a healthy attainable option with many benefits. Economically, environmentally, ethically, and taking disease into consideration, and even down to simple health and nutrition, it is a great cause. Beyond that, when compared to the typical American diet of fast food and processed meals, uneducated plant-based individuals aren’t the only ones who are lacking in essential nutrients.
Works Cited List
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Keywords: plant-based, diet, nutrition