Plant-Based Meat Versus A Natural Plant-Based Diet
By Jill Horn
In recent years, the popularity of plant-based meat alternatives has seen a remarkable surge, with an increasing number of people adopting these products which are marketed as a healthier and more environmentally friendly option than beef. The rise of plant-based meat substitutes can be observed through various indicators, such as the proliferation of advertisements and banners promoting Beyond Burgers and vegan “Chick’n” in major cities like Los Angeles. Grocery stores, fast food chains and even some high end restaurants now offer an extensive range of plant-based alternatives to traditional meat products, including beef, pork, chicken, and fish. In this article, I will critically explore some of the health and environmental impacts of plant-based meat alternatives.
“Although there are substantial benefits to shifting one’s diet toward higher intake of plant-based, organically grown, whole foods, the consumption of ultra-processed, plant-based meat alternatives should not be recommended until scientific evidence has clearly demonstrated health and environmental benefits of such foods.”
The consumption of ultra-processed plant-based meat alternatives may come with more long-term health risks than benefits. While the health benefits of following a largely plant-based diet have been well-established by large body of research, but these benefits shouldn’t be confused with high consumption of plant based meat substitutes, which oftentimes is full of sodium, preservatives, sugar, pesticides, and trans-fats. In addition, plant based meat products sold in fast food places often come with French fries, sauces and cheese which not only contribute calories but unhealthy components. The majority of plant-based meat alternatives have gone through rigorous processing, classifying as level 4 foods on the NOVA scale of processed foods. Ultra-processed foods in general have been shown to negatively impact human health, with gut dysbiosis, increased inflammation, and higher risk for chronic disease being just part of the problem. Further health risks of consuming some plant based meat substitutes come from the use of genetically modified soy contaminated by glyphosate (Roundup), which has been associated with endocrine disruption, increased risk for cancer, DNA damage, and liver damage. Thus while there are substantial benefits to shifting one’s diet toward higher intake of plant-based, organically grown, whole foods and reduction of beef consumption, the consumption of plant based meat alternatives does not necessarily have the same intended benefits, despite its reduced environmental impact. Reducing beef consumption while increasing minimally processed natural protein sources, such as organically grown soybean tofu and tempeh, eggs, and legumes is a healthier alternative.
“Studies have indicated that substituting meat consumption with plant-based alternatives can lead to a staggering 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Beyond the health benefits of eating more plant based foods, decreasing meat consumption may play a crucial role in reducing the environmental burden associated with meat production. Large scale livestock farming in central and South America to satisfy the insatiable appetite for meat in the US, China and Europe is a major contributor to global greenhouse methane gas emissions, deforestation, and water consumption. Studies have indicated that substituting meat consumption with plant-based alternatives can lead to a staggering 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Such a reduction is of paramount importance in the face of climate change and the urgent need to lower human impact on the environment. For example, replacing 1 serving of beef-derived protein with protein from peas presents a 24% to 100% smaller environmental burden across all categories tested in a recent study in the Journal of Cleaner Production. These findings support the suggestion that there is great potential for a reduction of meat consumption to alleviate environmental pressures and conserve natural resources. Last but not least, reducing or eliminating the consumption of animal based meat consumption and animal products in general results in a reduction of the unethical treatment of animals associated with the production meat.
“By embracing the ingestion of more organically grown, minimally processed healthy plant foods, individuals can not only contribute to their own well-being, but also actively participate in creating a more sustainable future for the planet.”
In conclusion, eating a largely plant-based diet and reducing meat intake has emerged as a viable and sustainable option for health-conscious consumers seeking to make more environmentally friendly food choices. A large and still growing body of scientific evidence highlights the potential health benefits of adopting largely plant-based diets, including reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and metabolic diseases. Furthermore, substituting traditional meat with minimally processed, sustainably grown plant-based alternatives can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land use, thereby greatly mitigating the environmental impact of food production. While the production of plant based meat substitutes reduces the associated environmental impact, there is currently no convincing evidence for a health benefit of such ultraprocessed foods.
Jill Horn is a recent UCLA graduate with a degree in Neuroscience. She is deeply interested in the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit takes an integrative approach to health and well-being. She aspires to the public about a research-based lifestyle and mindset that promote health. Jill also deeply resonates with the One Health concept, which emphasizes the interdependence of the health of people and the health of our planet, given the climate crisis we are facing.