Since many of you have been keen this month to cut out meat and dairy for Veganuary, I thought what better time to write a blog about the benefits of plant-based diets – and for longer than a one-month stint.
I stopped eating meat two years ago, purely for the sake of the animals. Not long after, I gradually began to reduce my dairy intake – again for the animals but also for health reasons.
During my studies to become a Nutrition Consultant, I have learnt about the health risks associated with meat and dairy consumption. These include increased chances of developing circulatory and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers (specifically bowel cancer), heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
I have also observed the benefits of plant-based diets...
Research suggests that people who eat primarily plant-based diets tend to have a lower BMI (body mass index), and as a result, have lower rates of obesity and diabetes than those who eat meat. This could be because plant-based diets are high in fibre, complex carbohydrates and water content from fruits and vegetables, which help you feel fuller for longer.
With regards to fitness, plant-based diets have also been linked to aiding recovery between workouts, boosting energy and reducing the risk of injury.
While there’s currently no hard scientific evidence to back these claims, studies have found that eating a vegetarian or vegan diet does not put athletes at a disadvantage when it comes to fitness training – and that a positive change in performance and recovery could be due to eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
These foods aid performance and recovery via their positive effects on the gut microbiota – that being the population of trillions of microbes that inhabit the gut, writes Anita Bean in her article on the topic. In other words, it’s not necessarily the absence of meat that’s helping athletes perform or recover better, rather their higher intake of plant nutrients and lower content of ultra-processed foods that tend to provoke inflammation.
Dairy has also been linked with skin problems, such as acne.
Researchers suggest that the artificial hormones in cow’s milk may throw your hormones off balance, and could be a factor to triggering acne. Another theory is that the natural growth hormones found in dairy milk can aggravate acne no matter what.
The dairy industry is also no fun for the cows. For more on this, head to Peta.co.uk or click on this link.
I also became more aware of the dairy industry’s negative impact on the planet.
To highlight this, check out these staggering stats…
- There are 270 million dairy cows in the world, and their manure produces greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.
- Carbon dioxide has relatively weak warming effects, but its effects are long-term, lasting hundreds of thousands of years. Methane has a far stronger effect, but its effect disperses in about a decade – according to Tara Garnett, greenhouse gas emissions researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
- Over a quarter of global gas emissions – including methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide – come from agricultural farming, according to a study by The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation. Their research also shows that between 2005 and 2015, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18% because of the dairy industry.
- Unsustainable dairy farming also results in major loss of ecologically important land, such as wetlands and forests.
While these facts and figures speak for themselves, some argue that the dairy industry has more benefits that outweigh its negative impact on the longevity of the earth.
Chief Executive of Dairy UK Dr Judith Bryans says dairy cannot only be viewed through the lens of greenhouse gas emissions or land use, and that dairy products provide vital nutrition to consumers.
“Encouraging or enforcing a reduction in dairy consumption could leave many consumers struggling to replace the valuable package of nutrients they get from dairy and paying higher food bills in the process.”
I have added these comments to give you two sides of the coin. Thanks to Judy, these opposing views also bring me nicely to my next section…
Some common myths about plant-based diets…
- Plant-based diets lack nutrients
Vegetables, fruit, beans, grains and pulses offer all the micro- and macro-nutrients your body needs for a healthy, balanced and colourful diet. Plants offer a wealth of vitamins and minerals, including iron and calcium, more so than meat. This is because animals (especially farm animals) get their energy from plants. And so when you consume meat, you’re effectively eating second hand-nutrients – but lacking in the fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that plants have. So why not go straight to the source?
- You can’t get enough protein if you’re vegan
Get this: plants absorb many minerals from the soil; phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and nitrogen, to name a few. From the nitrogen, nitrates are pulled into the plant and converted into 20 different kinds of amino acids – the building blocks of protein. Animals then eat these plants and absorb the amino acids to create protein. So, once again, the animal is the middle man here, the meat being the second-hand source of protein. And while animals can convert some amino acids into others as needed, they can’t make any of the essential amino acids from scratch – only plants can do that.
- Non-meat eaters are anaemic
Indeed, good sources of iron include red meat, pork, poultry and seafood, but there are so many non-meat-related foods that offer this vital nutrient too. Good plant sources of iron include beans, pulses, chickpeas, quinoa, green vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach and kale), nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and fortified breakfast cereal.
- Plant-based diets aren’t as tasty
I don’t see how anyone would find a plant-based diet bland – a diet that incorporates vibrant vegetables, spices, herbs, hearty grains and refreshing fruits, and can be turned into so many wonderful and delicious recipes. Plus, pretty much anything can be made plant-based – from pies and pizzas, to curries and casseroles.
So, we have shared the stats and challenged the myths, now what?
Well, as much I’m certainly not telling anyone how to live their life, as a health and exercise professional I do feel a sense of responsibility to encourage others to live and eat more healthily, and to at least lessen their meat and dairy intake.
If you’re only just embarking on a journey to gradually reducing animal products from your diet, a vegetarian diet is a good place to start. For those who gave Veganuary a try and think it’s something you could continue with, then good for you. I’m certain you will soon feel the health benefits!
Some useful resources:
For some delicious plant-based meal ideas, I recommend you check out Avant Garde Vegan (by Gaz Oakley) on Youtube and Deliciously Ella’s website, both of which offer a range of wholesome, fun and nutritious recipes.
If you have any questions about the research referred to in this blog post or anything else discussed, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org