Meat vs Greens

What’s better—a vegetarian diet or a non-vegetarian one?


A high-meat diet could increase the risk of cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.
A high-meat diet could increase the risk of cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

About a year ago, I asked myself a question: ‘Knowing what I know, why am I not a vegetarian?’ I knew that eating a mere hamburger a day can increase my risk of dying by a third.... Environmentally, meat causes more emissions than all of transportation combined: cars, trains, planes, buses, boats, all of it.” Graham Hill, the New York-based founder of Treehugger.com, a one-stop shop for green news, covered all the major findings—give or take some research—when he talked about why being a non-vegetarian is not the world’s best idea, at a 2010 TED conference. TED is a non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading.

That’s just one side of the coin though. There is a section of research—albeit a tad less—that suggests otherwise: Meat in the diet ensures optimal nutrition. The studies keep coming, leaving the health world divided over what provides wholesome nutrition: meat or greens. For the time being, it seems to be tilted a little towards the latter.

Let’s take stock

The one question that is often raised in a meat-versus-green debate is, “How will I get my protein if I don’t eat meat?” That’s a myth, says Shikha Sharma, founder of health management centre Nutri-Health Systems in Delhi. “We don’t really need meat to complete our dietary requirements—30g of chicken/fish/egg will give you 6g proteins, almost what 30g of pulses will provide. Many of our pehelwans are vegetarians. And the hygiene conditions of our slaughterhouses are nothing to boast about.”

But then, what about studies that suggest a vegetarian diet—comprising fruits, vegetables, nuts and wholegrain products—could increase the risk of cancer, allergies, even depression? “Most studies are conducted in a controlled environment, so it’s difficult to say that they apply to all. It’s not like vegetarians don’t die of high cholesterol or heart disease. It depends on the person, the kind of lifestyle he/she leads and genetics,” says Peeyush Jain, head, preventive cardiology, at the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre in New Delhi. “Also, we are genetically different from people in the US or Europe,” reasons Sheela Krishnaswamy, national president of the Indian Dietetic Association. 

Dr Jain says it’s true that a high-meat diet could increase the risk of cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes (experts say an average person should not have more than 100g of meat, irrespective of whether it is red or poultry, in a day). “But it’s also true that people might miss out on vitamin B12 and calcium if they only stick to vegetables and fruits. So, an average person leading a sedentary lifestyle has to be really careful about where those 1,900 or so calories that one’s supposed to consume every day are coming from,” says Krishnaswamy.

Ideally, 20% of what we eat should be good unsaturated fats (coconut oil, dairy products, avocado, nuts), 25% proteins (either from plants or animals) and the remaining divided between carbohydrates and fibre.

“Even our fruits and vegetables are laden with pesticides, so the risk of falling sick can’t be negated in a vegetarian diet,” says Sharma, adding, “The same risk increases in the meat-eating diet too beabecauseb there’s a possibility that the animal you are eating might have eaten those chemical-laden plants.”

What’s for dinner?

“Meat is not a staple for us as it is for countries like China or the US, where eating non-vegetarian food is part of the daily diet,” says Krishnaswamy. According to a survey released in June by the Registrar of India, seven out of 10 Indians are non-vegetarians, but the average meat consumption of a person in a year is a mere 4.4kg. A 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says the US alone consumes 120.2kg meat per person in a year, while the UK consumes 84.2kg—the world average is 41.9kg. For China, the figure is 58.2kg.  

Concerned about the increasing meat consumption, the Chinese government issued new dietary guidelines a few months ago, asking citizens to reduce their meat intake to 40-75g per person per day, down 50% (China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, according to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2015-2024 publication). This, the government believes, would help control the country’s rising obesity problems and “reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030”. Over 14% of greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock.  

Even our fruits and vegetables are laden with pesticides.
Even our fruits and vegetables are laden with pesticides.

Keep it balanced

When there is so much information about the harmful effects of meat on the body as well as the environment, why do people still eat it? “Our earliest ancestors were vegans, living on plants, nuts and seeds—and not flesh-eating carnivores, as many people believe. It was only two million years ago, when the tools and bodies were ready, that they became meat eaters,” says science writer Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: The History And Science Of Our 2.5-Million Year Obsession With Meat. This “meat hunger” is actually a hunger for protein, which can be satiated by eating pulses and grains, says Zaraska. 

But expecting a non-vegetarian to give up meat is difficult, just as it is tough to ask a vegetarian to eat meat. “No matter how much we debate, it’s really a matter of personal choice and priorities. If you care about the environment and can make healthy choices, there’s nothing wrong with going green. If you can’t give up on meat, consider moderation,” suggests Dr Jain.

Or become a “weekday veg” like Graham Hill. “Nothing with a face, Monday through Friday. On the weekend, your choice. Simple,” he said during his TED talk. 

What research says

A timeline of findings over the years

September

1999

‘The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition’ published a study of 6,000 vegetarians and 5,000 non-vegetarians in the UK, conducted from 1980-84. It found that vegetarians had lower cholesterol levels.

February

2014

‘PLoS One’ published an Austrian study of 1,320 individuals which found that a vegetarian diet carried with it an elevated risk of cancer, allergies and mental health problems such as anxiety.

April

2014

The ‘American Journal Of Epidemiology’ published an Australian study of 6,700 people, in the 58-69 age group, which found that red-meat eaters are almost 50% more likely to suffer age-
related macular degeneration.

July

2014

The ‘Climate Change’ journal published a study that showed meat-eaters’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions was twice as high as that of vegans (including vegans who do not consume animal by-products like eggs and dairy).

November

2015

The ‘Environment Systems And Decisions’ journal published a study that found many common vegetables, including eggplant, celery and cucumbers, required more resources for cultivation, and produced higher greenhouse gas emissions than some types of meat.

May

2016 

A study in the ‘Molecular Biology And Evolution’ journal said people whose families had stuck to a primarily vegetarian diet for generations were likely to be at an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

August

2016

A study of 170,000 people in the ‘JAMA Internal Medicine’ journal said too much animal protein intake, particularly red and processed meat, may increase the risk of early death.

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