A vegetarian's view

Sound Consumer | December 2010

by John Robbins

The evidence keeps growing that the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, and to eat much fewer processed foods, sugars and animal products. The standard American diet, containing 62 percent of calories from processed foods, 25 percent from animal products, and only 5 percent from fruits and vegetables, is a travesty. It has produced a population with widespread chronic illness and is a primary reason that healthcare costs are spiraling out of control.

Choosing more vegetarian foods is an important part of the solution. There are many reasons why a vegetarian diet is beneficial — for you, animals and the environment.

Health benefits

The health benefits of a well-planned vegetarian diet have been well-documented across cultures and throughout time. Theevidence is consistent and compelling that vegetarians suffer less from the diseases associated with the typical Western diet.

Vegetarians repeatedly have been shown to have lower rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, Type II diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation and gallstones. They also have lower rates of many kinds of cancer, including colon cancer and the hormone-dependent cancers, such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer.

Do you have to be a strict vegetarian to enjoy the considerable health benefits of a vegetarian diet? No. What’s important is to eat a plant-strong diet, with a high percentage of your calories coming from fruits and vegetables, and a low percentage coming from processed foods, sugars, unhealthy fats and animal products.

Environment and animal welfare

President Herbert Hoover famously promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” But as best-selling author and health advocate Kathy Preston points out: “With warnings about global warming reaching feverish levels, many are having second thoughts about all those cars. It seems they should instead be worrying about the chickens.”

Preston’s comments appeared in an article that she provocatively titled “Vegetarian is the New Prius.” She wrote in the wake of a seminal report published in 2007 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the report found that meat production is one of the top two or three contributors to environmental problems at every level and at every scale, from global to local. It’s one of the leading drivers in land degradation, pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Is it far-fetched to compare eating little or no animal products with driving a Prius, and comparing eating meat with driving a Camry? In 2006 a University of Chicago study found that switching to a vegan diet would save more CO2 than switching from a standard sedan to a Prius.

According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, growing non-organic, GMO corn to feed U.S. livestock requires vast quantities of petroleum-based fertilizer. A grain-fed steer can consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime.

If we were to shift to managed intensive grazing of livestock, along the lines indicated by the work of Allan Savory, there would be decided environmental benefits. Grass-fed beef requires fewer antibiotics and other chemicals than grain-fed cattle, and the resulting beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

From a humanitarian perspective, there’s another advantage to pastured products: the animals themselves aren’t forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe, you don’t have to be a vegetarian or animal rights activist to find the conditions intolerable.

While there are many advantages to grass-fed beef over feedlot beef, it still is not a food that I, for one, am able to recommend. Grass-fed livestock may graze on land that is irrigated from dwindling water resources, and it takes a long time and a lot of grassland to raise a grass-fed steer. Western rangelands are vast but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way grass-fed beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger.

For 'A naturopath's view' »

John Robbins is the author of eight bestsellers, including "Diet For A New America" and "The Food Revolution." Learn more at johnrobbins.info.

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