On this food day, if I had to simplify my message to just three words, it would be those. But this is a blog post, not a tweet! Let me explain.
When I first went vegetarian four and a half years ago, I cited environmental reasons. To this date, when asked, this is my primary answer, and remains my most motivating reason for refraining from eating meat. From an environmental perspective, there is hardly anything better you could do to help the planet than to go vegan. I have shared some stats before, including this one, but it is powerful enough to repeat: Greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture account for 18% of the U.S. share! This quantity of gases is a full 40% more than all of transportation combined! Going vegan reduces your carbon footprint 40% more than choosing to never use transportation of any kind ever again. That is stunning.
But while this is my biggest concern with eating animal foods, I am currently in graduate school studying nutrition education, and making the case for the health benefits of eating (mostly) vegan is what I am interested in now. And like the environment, the case is pretty much as compelling.
The China Study is one of the most comprehensive studies on human nutrition ever to be conducted. In this study, the dietary habits of 6,500 rural Chinese people were examined over the course of many years, and data was collected on over 200 variables. Data was also collected on their biometric statistics, such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure, BMI, and incidence of chronic diseases like coronary heart disease and cancer. Nearly 8,000 statistically significant associations were shown between diet, lifestyle, and disease!
And most of these significant associations were between the consumption of animal protein and the incidence of disease. As animal protein consumption went up, so did the rates for disease. As plant protein increased and animal protein decreased, these disease rates fell.
One of the more stunning findings was that cholesterol was a strong predictor of many “Western” diseases. Cholesterol levels in China were much lower than the U.S.; their higher end of the scale (170 mg/dL) was our lower end, and their lower end (90 mg/dL) was at the time considered by doctors to be dangerously low (now we know that’s not the case). However, researchers found that as cholesterol decreased on this scale, from 170 down to 90, so too did the cases of cancers of the liver, rectum, colon, lung, breast, childhood leukemia, adult leukemia, brain, stomach, and esophagus. This was starting from our low end of the cholesterol scale!
Likewise, cholesterol is the main predictor of coronary heart disease, and the same associations were observed, not just in China, but throughout studies in the U.S. as well, between high cholesterol and heart disease. And what the researchers found in China was that as intakes of meat, milk, eggs, fish, fat and animal protein go up, so does blood cholesterol. When consumption of plants of virtually all kinds (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, as well as their component parts such as fiber, plant protein, and vitamins) goes up, blood cholesterol goes down. Let me say that again. The more animal foods you eat, the higher your cholesterol, and the higher your risk of all the aforementioned afflictions. The more plant foods you eat, the lower your cholesterol. It’s that simple.
The same story is true for diabetes, obesity, prostate cancer, and other chronic diseases. In the book based on this study, the author not only includes his own data, but also includes countless studies showing the strong relationship between eating animal products and increased risk of all of these diseases.
There is so much complexity and detail to this study and this book, that really this should be taken as my health argument in a nutshell. Speaking of, after you read this, go eat some nuts instead of meat or dairy; your heart, and apparently the entirety of your body will thank you.
Reduce animal product consumption as much as possible. Go (mostly) vegan. Eat the Bittman diet; vegan before dinner. Do what works. But do something! Celebrate good, real food, and eat mostly vegan for the rest of your healthy prosperous life! Happy Food Day y’all
p.s. Check out this video for a little synopsis of just one of the effects of eating a whole foods, plant-based diet.