Is Being Vegetarian Really Better for the Planet?

Part of our journey to a greener lifestyle has included taking a closer look at the foods that we eat.  I shared here about my choices regarding organic vs. conventionally grown produce but produce isn’t the only aspect of our diet that concerns me.  What about meat?  Is it good for us or is it harmful?  Does a diet consisting heavily of meat consumption lead to disease?  How about the impact of meat on our planet?  I’ve read that raising livestock produces more greenhouse gasses than cars.  Is a vegetarian diet better for the planet?

 

She’s Become Vegan

Several months ago I met a woman who had recently opened her own whole food juice and smoothie bar.  We got to talking and she shared with me her “why” for opening her business.  She had lost a significant amount of weight by moving to a plant based diet and that success led her to open this establishment.  She also mentioned to me a documentary she thought I would like, “What the Health”.  I’m a huge fan of environmental and health documentaries.  They are my “guilty pleasure Netflix binge watch”.  I’ve seen “Food Inc”, “Fat Sick and Nearly Dead”, “Fed Up”, and several others so I was eager to watch “What the Health”.

“What the Health” by Kip Andersen focuses on the link between the food we eat and disease.  Andersen has a family history of diabetes and cancer which is what caused him to be super concerned about his own health and what steps he could take to avoid that same fate.  A few statistics that he mentioned that I’ll say surprised me (but sort of didn’t):

  • 350 Million people have diabetes
  • 1 in 3 Medicare dollars are spent on people with diabetes
  • 1 in 10 total healthcare dollars are spent on people with diabetes
  • 80% of all drugs sold by pharmaceutical companies are to livestock farmers
  • roughly $238M/year is spent by pharmaceutical companies on political lobbying
  • treating chronic diseases in the US is a $1.5 Trillion industry
  • the World Health Organization classifies processed meat (bacon, deli meat, sausage, salami, etc) as a group 1 carcinogen, the same category as tobacco smoke, Asbestos, and Plutonium

 

is a vegetarian diet better for the planet - Finding Our Green Life

 

Through the film, Andersen attempts to understand why foods that are scientifically proven to have a link to a variety of diseases, are promoted as part of a healthy lifestyle by associations that are supposed to be helping those with the disease.  His attempts to contact these associations are at times, comical but not at all surprising.  He later determines why the information is so contradictory.  You’ll have to watch to find out.  I don’t want to spoil it all for you.  Woven through the film are the stories of several people and the path they have taken to heal themselves from a variety of ailments.

 

Andersen also addresses the relationship between raising livestock and its direct effect on our environment.  This is the part that I didn’t know much about.  The information he presents is very eye opening and overwhelming, all at the same time.  My curiosity about the relationship was peaked so I hit up Google to see what else I could learn.  Changing my diet could be tricky, could being vegetarian be enough or would I have to become vegan?  Is a vegetarian diet better for the planet?  I’m pretty sure if I told my husband we were adopting a vegan lifestyle in our house, he’d probably leave me and my kids would lose their minds.   Hmmm, might be worth it for the good of the planet, ok, I’m kidding!?!

 

Is A Vegetarian diet better for the planet

 

Can you guess what the worst offender is?  It’s the cow!  They can’t help it, their 4 chamber stomachs digest plants by way of fermentation.  That fermentation leads to a lot of burping.  Cow burps account for 26% of the United State’s total methane emissions.  Do we have to give up grilled steaks and burgers?   Studies show eating too much red meat isn’t heart healthy so should we be opting for chicken, turkey, pork, etc. or should we just give it all up?  Is a vegetarian diet better for the planet and us?

Turns out, the answer isn’t so simple.

 

A Vegetarian Diet Is Healthier For Who?

 

Vegetarian diet - Finding Our Green Life

 

Everyone has different genes and different health issues so I chose to focus on the impact raising livestock has on the environment.  As you probably know, I’m not terribly sciency (is this a word!?!) so my take away is generally not tied up in the exact numbers and technical descriptions but the summary.  After reading numerous articles about the impact raising livestock has on our environment, it has become clear to me that there isn’t a definitive answer to the question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for the planet”.  Most people, myself included, assume a vegetarian diet has a lesser impact on the environment than a carnivorous diet but some studies show that isn’t the case.

 

If we swapped out meat for fruits, vegetables, dairy and seafood, our impact on the environment could actually be worse.  How could this possibly be the case!?!  How can the effort of growing plants be worse for the environment than the effort it takes to raise an animal and bring it to your table?  The bottom line is it comes down to calories.   Based on research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers believe that if Americans were to follow the US Department of Agriculture’s current dietary recommendations, the impact on the environment would be worse than what Americans currently eat.  According to Paul Fischbeck, one of the researchers, this is because “Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken.”

 

How Much Broccoli Can One Person Eat?

Tamar Haspel writes in a Washington Post article, “If you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories. You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli. Calories are the great equalizer, and it makes sense to use them as the basis of the calculation.”  Um, I don’t know about you, but that’s a little more broccoli than I can eat.

 

Should We Adopt A Vegetarian Lifestyle?

So how’s a mom to decide the best path forward?  I don’t think there is a 100% correct answer.  After watching a few documentaries that have exposed how factory farmed livestock is raised, I’m not ok with how these animals are treated so I choose to go the organic or “know your local farmer” route.  Watching “What the Health” has helped me to better understand the potential medical consequences of eating different types of meat so now I’ll be thinking differently when I meal plan.  I had always assumed raising livestock was worse for our environment because, heck, I don’t know any vegetables that burp, fart and poop but now my eyes have been opened.

 

We do follow a “meatless Monday” routine and don’t eat meat every night, however, I’m going to challenge myself to do more.  I don’t yet know what that looks like because to be perfectly honest, most days I struggle to get dinner on the table.   I used to do a decent job meal planning but these days, long about 6 pm I’m checking the pantry and the refrigerator trying to figure out what I can come up with. It’s going to take me a bit of time and I’m going to have to start small but my action item after watching this film is to make some changes to my family’s eating habits.

 

I suppose like everything in life, we just have to find a good balance that works for our family.  There’s no right or wrong answer, my biggest concerns are our health, how animals are treated and our environment so I’ll have to weigh them all and find the right balance for our family.

Have you seen this documentary?  If so, what did you think?  If not, are you interested?

 

– Heather

 

Sources:

Vegetarian and ‘Healthy’ Diets May Actually Be Worse For The Environment, Study Finds

Vegetarian or omnivore: The environmental implications of diet

Burp by Burp, Fighting Emissions from Cows

What would happen if the world suddenly went vegetarian?

 

Which diet is better for the planet, a vegetarian or a carnivorous diet?

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10 thoughts on “Is Being Vegetarian Really Better for the Planet?

  1. I just watched “What the Health” last week, and it is by far my favorite food/health documentary to date! I like how you pointed out that we would need so many more servings of vegetables in order to replace the meat based on calories. I am looking into a more plant-based diet as well. I think ultimately if it is healthier for us and enough people get involved in the lifestyle switch, we will find a way to make it work environmentally. I’m also not a sciency person, so it’s hard for me to say for sure!

    1. Thanks Rachel! Sounds like we might be twins that were separated at birth 😂 I think it all boils down to everything in moderation. I feel like even just purchasing meat from farmers who treat the animals and the environment well is a step in the right direction.

  2. Really interesting. I haven’t seen What The Health, but I do think that moving away from animal products is probably best for the environment and for people. However being vegan or vegetarian is not really plausible for everyone, so I think making swaps when we can, even if they seem small, can really help.

    1. Thanks Margaret! I totally agree with you, being vegetarian or vegan isn’t something everyone wants to do but if everyone made small changes and atleast for me personally, be more mindful of the path my food takes to my plate, we could make some positive change.

  3. This was actually a very interesting piece…I had considered going vegetarian but with multiple food allergies in our house it was getting hard. I like your thoughts about moderation and making wiser choices in our meat purchases.

  4. Lots of food for thought! I’m not officially vegetarian but I often go for weeks at a time without eating animal products, so I might have to look at taking it further after reading this! The numbers are pretty shocking too – thanks for going to the effort of including the stats 🙂

    1. Thanks Jenni! I’m in the middle of a juice reset program and think when it’s done, I’ll probably curtail my animal product consumption a good bit. I think the only thing I would really have a hard time giving up would be cheese but even that, I don’t eat much of.

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