Millions of people currently subsist on a diet free of meat, and millions more do so on a diet completely free of any animal produce whatsoever. For some reason, what a person chooses (or rather in this case, chooses not) to eat is a weirdly contentious issue online. So we compiled a list of 5 pros and 5 cons of a vegetarian or vegan diet you you may want to consider if not eating meat is something that’s ever appealed to you.
*Note: There is an unbelievable amount of misinformation about the topic of vegetarian diets online from both sides of the aisle. To be clear, this article neither supports nor condemns the idea of abstaining from eating meat. It’s an interesting topic that has become highly politicized and we just wanted to challenge that with an article that takes a more balanced approach.
5. Vegetarian diets cost more (if you’re poor)
Although a diet consisting solely of pizza, fries, and super-sized cups of soda technically constitutes a vegetarian diet, the image in most people’s heads when they hear the word “vegetarian” is one of a cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables. Which is a problem, because fresh produce costs a lot of money.
Now this is the point in conversation where someone would interject to say “well, actually, if you go to the farmer’s market, you can get a week’s worth of groceries for a fraction of the price you can in the store.” Which is a perfectly valid point that means nothing to the millions of low income families who simply don’t have the kind of scratch necessary to drive 30 miles on a weekend to buy chard. Something militant vegetarians seem to have a hard time understanding is that to some people, crappy junk food is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables. A study exploring the inherent difficulties of maintaining a nutritionally balanced diet on a low income supports this, stating:
“When incomes drop and family budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper but more energy-dense foods. The first items dropped are usually healthier foods – high-quality proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruit.”
Factor in that poorer families often have less free time to actually cook food, and a healthy vegetarian diet is not only difficult to maintain for a poorer person, but almost impossible. Because – oh yeah – one of the real difficulties of being a vegetarian is that…
4. Vegetarian diets are worse healthwise (if you don’t do it properly)
It’s often said that vegan diets are bad for you because you can’t get essential vitamins and minerals that are present in meat into your body. This isn’t true, and it is possible to get everything your body needs with a no meat or no animal products diet. The problem is it’s very difficult, to the point of being nearly unsustainable for some people.
Again, this is where someone would jump in saying “But I don’t eat meat and I’m perfectly healthy! I just replace beef and chicken with [insert farty sounding buzz-food here].” To be clear, we’re not saying that it’s impossible to be healthy and vegetarian. Every major health authority we consulted notes that a vegetarian diet can be healthy; however, it requires a sustained effort and – you guessed it – time and money to make it work (two things some people sadly have precious little of).
For example, just consider one nutrient, vitamin B-12. This vitamin is found nearly exclusively in animal products and most unbiased health authorities highly recommend vegans and even vegetarians take supplements to make sure they get enough of it in their diet. These supplements cost money, and while some may scoff at 10 dollars a week to save all the animals, there are families and individuals out there living paycheck to paycheck who could really use that 10 dollars. Besides, eating a varied vegetarian diet is also a problem because…
3. Demand for exotic produce can be harmful to the environment, in specific circumstances
A popular vegetarian talking point is that if the world suddenly stopped eating meat, a plethora of good things would happen. Global emissions would be reduced, people would live longer, there’d be less disease, and everyone would get to high five the celebrity of their choice. Research supports these claims; however, it also notes that this would require a massive, global shift in lifestyle and attitude, which is just not going to happen. Like it or not, people like eating meat.
Which is why such claims should be taken with a pinch of salt, instead it’s better to look at what would happen if a considerable percentage of people became vegetarian but not enough to upset the established system of food production already in place. In this scenario, which is more likely because it’s already happening, things aren’t as hunky dory as they are in the previous paragraph.
In particular, research has shown that in some specific circumstances growing the equivalent amount of vegetables is more resource intensive than just raising animals for meat. A key problem is that not every fruit or vegetable can be grown year round without a major investment of resources. Likewise, the demand for more exotic health foods like quinoa has a major impact on the environment because it has to be shipped across the ocean, along with all the bananas you’re cramming into a smoothie. If you really care about the environment it’s almost guaranteed that a steak from a farm 10 miles down the road has caused less overall damage to the environment that a kiwi fruit shipped halfway around the world and driven 300 miles across the country. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the truck carrying your kale probably hit like 3 birds on its way to the store because…
2. A vegetarian diet still harms tons of animals
A problem with producing food on the scale that Western humanity does is is that it’s impossible to rule out, with any certainty, any foodstuff you buy isn’t responsible for at least one animal death. Whether it’s field mice being hurled into a thresher alongside a couple thousands stalks of corn or the natural habitat of woodland creatures being razed to the ground to make way for fields, all farming harms animals, however ethical.
A researcher named Steven Davis felt this brought up an interesting ethical quandary. Is it more morally defensible to kill millions of animals accidentally every year than it is to purposely kill them to consume their flesh?
We’re not even going to pretend we’re qualified to answer that question. We simply felt that, in an article like this, we had to mention that (as David puts it) “Nobody’s hands are free from the blood of other animals, not even vegetarians.” So at the very least, if you do become a vegetarian for moral or ethical reasons, maybe hold off on acting too high and mighty about it.
1. Vegetarians are more likely to suffer from health problems
We already noted in a previous entry that vegetarians and vegans need to make a concerted, sustained effort to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet. Although many vegetarians and vegans do, a significant number do not, and this is where problems arise.
A 2014 study of individuals who subscribed to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle found that they were more likely to be in “poorer health” than those who didn’t, mostly due to lack of essential nutrients found in their diets. It’s not all bad, though, because the same study also found that there are some benefits to not eating meat and that, overall, vegetarians and vegans had a lower BMI than meat eaters. Which segues beautifully into our counter list of 5 pros of being a vegetarian or vegan, starting with…
5. Vegetarian and vegans are often thinner
We already mentioned how, technically, you could gorge yourself on junk food every day and still be a vegetarian. However, studies have shown that, by and large, vegetarians and vegans tend to have a lower BMI than meat eaters. This is largely because fresh fruit and vegetables seldom contain saturated fats, and the fats contained in things like nuts and seeds are more easily metabolized by the body.
Vegetarians and vegans also, on the whole, consume less cholesterol and eat more fiber, which mean both their arteries and colon will be less clogged than a person who enjoys red meat on a daily basis. In other words, if you’re looking to lose weight, a vegetarian diet could help because it will naturally involve eating less fat than an omnivorous one. In fact, a vegan diet can be incredibly beneficial to many people looking to improve their overall health, provided they do one very important thing and plan their freaking meals. Speaking of eating a diverse range of foods…
4. A (good) vegetarian diet is rich in lesser consumed vitamins and minerals
While it’s certainly true that, as mentioned previously, vegetarians and vegans struggle to consume a healthy amount of certain, specific minerals and vitamins more commonly found in meat products, the inverse is also true. By which we mean that, by the nature of eating a diet rich in lesser consumed foodstuffs to get these vitamins and minerals, vegetarians and vegans get the added benefit of also consuming less common nutrients that can be beneficial to the body.
For example, one study noted that “A vegetarian diet is associated with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acids, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated.” We won’t get into detail about what all of those long, impressive sounding words mean, but suffice it to say consuming adequate amounts of them are all linked to good health and well-being. Another less commonly touted fact about a vegetarian or vegan diet is that…
3. It can give you a better “Antioxidant status”
‘Antioxidant’ is probably a word you’ve heard thrown around a lot and assumed it was just some bogus medical-sounding jargon buzzword companies slapped on boxes of tea to sell to hipsters who shop at Whole Foods. In actuality, antioxidants are pretty important to the body as a whole and play a crucial role protecting you. In fact, scientists have tentatively claimed that antioxidants have cancer fighting and prevention properties, as well as protecting the body from a slew of other nasty ailments and problems.
So where are these magical antioxidants found? Well, mostly inside of fruits and vegetables, which vegetarians and vegans consume on a much larger scale than omnivores, giving them a better overall “antioxidant status.” Of course you could argue that omnivores could get the same benefit with supplements, but then you’d sound exactly like all those gym bros arguing that vegans don’t get enough protein in their diet. Also, doctors don’t recommend taking antioxidant supplements because there haven’t been enough studies done into whether they’re safe. For any vegetarians feeling pretty smug about this, that might be because…
2. A vegetarian diet can improve your overall mood (in the short term)
As Bart Simpson once said, “You don’t make friends with salad.” Well to counter that flawless logic, there’s a study that shows you also don’t have that good a time eating meat, either.
To explain, a randomized study conducted in 2012 about what would would happen to the mood of individuals when placed on a restrictive diet found that when omnivores abstained from eating “meat, fish and poultry” over a two week period their mood increased significantly. It’s important to note that this study was rather small and had no conclusive results, but it may be worth keeping in mind that at least one study has shown that eating a couple of extra apples and not having a colon clogged with cow flesh made some people feel a little better.
We should also point out that there have been studies showing the opposite of this, that a vegetarian diet is linked to poor mood and even depression. However, most experts believe this to be a side effect of iron deficiency, which arises as a result of poor meal planning on behalf of some vegetarians – something we’ve already noted is a bad idea in general. Besides, the risk is probably worth it given that…
1. A vegetarian diet might protect you from dying of a heart attack
This is perhaps the most controversial item on the list, so allow us to explain. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests a vegetarian or vegan diet can protect you from a host of horrible diseases – in particular heart disease.
This is because one of the #1 things linked to heart disease, besides smoking, is red and processed meat which, we don’t know if you’ve heard, vegetarians don’t eat all that much of. In addition, eating a lot of processed meat has been linked to all kinds of cancer, which are, well, bad.
As vegetarians will, by default, never eat either of these things, they’re naturally much less at risk of any of the potentially life threatening side-effects of consuming it. This isn’t to say that vegetarians aren’t at risk of heart disease or cancer, it’s just that their diet means they’re in a much better place to avoid it. Think of it like walking on the sidewalk: you can still be hit by a car, but there’s more chance it’s going to hit the guy in the middle of the road eating a steak.
Of course, as this article has discussed in detail, there are still major cons of a vegetarian or vegan diet you need to be mindful of. But at least now, hopefully, you have a more nuanced opinion on the subject after reading this.