Have you ever thought about going vegetarian? Research conducted by Newspoll in 2008 found that seven in 10 Australians regularly choose meat-free options for a variety of reasons: it’s healthier, it’s better for the planet or it’s a more affordable way to eat. But are these reasons actually true? is vegetarianism really better for your body, the planet or your wallet? We take a look at the evidence.
Is it better for you?
Fifty-one per cent of Australians believe that you miss out on important nutrients if you only eat vegetarian meals. But, as long as it’s well-balanced, a vegetarian diet can actually be healthier for you than a meat-eater's diet, say the American Dietetic Association (ADA). They suggest that “vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat [and] cholesterol... as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.”
The ADA isn’t the only one espousing the benefits of going vego – there have been many studies reporting that vegetarians experience health benefits, including lower rates of death from heart disease; lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; lower body fat and body weight; and lower rates of ‘Western diseases’, such as obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and prostate and colon cancer.
However, just as there are unhealthy, overweight meat eaters, there are also unhealthy, overweight vegetarians. Relying too heavily on eggs and dairy products for protein is a common mistake among new or younger vegetarians, as is eating too limited a range of foods. Many popular vegetarian dishes are also quite high in fat. For example, a vegetarian lasagne or a vegetable laksa with fried tofu cubes contains as much as 35g of fat – you’d be better off choosing a plate of lean meat and veg!
Moreover, meat, poultry and seafood offer a variety of nutrients essential to our health, and simply cutting these things out of your diet, without any nutritional replacements, leaves you at risk of dietary deficiencies. Vegetarianism may offer a variety of health benefits, but similar to a diet containing meat, only if you follow a healthy and balanced diet.
Does it save you money?
In a world of $2 double cheeseburgers, a vegetarian diet could seem expensive! However, if you’re comparing a healthy meat-eater’s diet – including a variety of good quality, lean meats – with a healthy vegetarian diet, the vegetarian diet may actually be less costly. Plant-based protein replacements like pulses, legumes and tofu are generally less expensive than quality, lean cuts of meat. These lower prices are usually reflected on restaurant menus too, with vegetarian dishes often cheaper than meat and seafood dishes.
Vegetarian or not, eating plenty of plant-based produce could save you a considerable amount in expensive health-care costs a few years down the track, so it might be worth it to spend a little bit more on healthier foods and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Is it better for the planet?
According to a report released by the United Nations in 2006, going meat-free does seem to be better for the environment. The report found that producing meat is a very energy-intensive process, as animals in factory farms require food to be grown specifically for them. Worldwide, about 471 million hectares of land are devoted to feed production – land that could well be used for growing grains or fresh produce.
The same report also found that the livestock industry generates a devastating 18 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity – more than all forms of transportation combined (13.5 per cent). Recently, a Japanese study found that a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving a car for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home.
According to Dr Mark Scarr, a lecturer in ecology and environmental management at Victoria university, livestock farming can have a number of detrimental effects on the environment. “It compacts the soil; overstocking and overgrowing can strip vegetation, which can then increase soil erosion… [and] when livestock manure breaks down, it produces other gases, such as nitrous oxide, which can form acid rain,” he says. An American study also found that beef production requires phenomenal amounts of water – up to 16,000 litres are required to produce 1kg of beef, as opposed to just 500 litres for 1kg of potatoes.
But Dr Beverley Henry, Meat & Livestock Australia’s manager of environment, sustainability and climate change, says water usage estimates for livestock production are often blown out of proportion, citing a UNSW study that found water usage for beef production in southern Australia ranges from only 27 litres to 540 litres of water per kilo of meat. She adds: “The science shows that many Australian cattle producers are actively improving land condition, increasing biodiversity and reversing soil erosion.”
Moreover, vegetable production is far from being free from environmental impact. Critics point to the environmental devastation in South America, where 37.6 million hectares of forests have been cleared to make way for the worldwide spike in demand for soybean crops. Nutrition specialist Dr Shawn Somerset at Griffith University, points out that vegetarian options are not always the better choice to make if you’re purchasing produce that’s been shipped halfway around the world. “It’s not a sustainable exercise to buy Californian cherries in the middle of winter in Australia.”
What about animal welfare?
Many people turn to vegetarianism as a proactive, personal action to reduce the number of animals raised and then slaughtered each year for food consumption. The living conditions of factory-raised animals can be quite poor and by choosing not to eat meat, they lessen the demand for meat and reduce the number of animals living in such conditions. Alternatively, many meat-eaters are now turning towards purchasing only free-range meat products; encouraging a better standard of living for farm-raised animals.
Can it affect your health?
If you decide a vegetarian diet is the way to go, it’s not simply a matter of removing meat from your diet. First, you need to improve your current diet (eat healthier fats, whole grains, fruit and vegetables and leaner proteins). Then, eat less meat, rather than cutting it out completely – transition to a meatless diet over several months. To avoid deficiency, it’s also important to concentrate on getting the follow nutrients:
Omega-3: Getting enough omega-3 fats can be tricky since they’re most commonly found in fish oils, seafood and lean red meats. Walnuts, walnut oil, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and soybeans are useful sources of omega-3. Men should aim for 160mg per day and women should get 90mg per day.
Zinc: Zinc plays an important role in a range of metabolic processes; it’s an antioxidant and is essential to the immune system. Zinc is concentrated in meat, fish, oysters and chicken, so intake can drop if not carefully managed. Sources of zinc for vegetarians include dairy foods, bran and wholegrain breakfast cereals, dried peas, legumes, wheat germ, whole grains, seeds and nuts. The recommended daily intake for men is 14mg per day and 8mg per day for women.
Iron: Plant-based iron (known as ‘non-haem iron’) is not as well absorbed by the body as the ‘haem’ iron found in meat. Plant-based sources of iron include: iron-fortified breakfast cereals; dark green vegetables such as spinach, silverbeet or broccoli; dried legumes (especially soy, chickpeas and lentils); tofu or soy steaks; dried fruit and cocoa powder. To maximise your body’s ability to absorb non-haem iron, consume it at the same time as a food rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, capsicum or tomatoes. Women require 18mg/day iron; men need 8mg.
Protein: The body requires eight essential amino acids for growth and repair. Only soy protein and animal tissues contain the complete set of essential amino acids, so in order to get complete protein, vegetarians need to combine different protein sources and eat a range of protein foods over the course of the day. To work out how much protein you need, multiply your body weight in kilograms by 0.75 (for females) or 0.84 (for males). That number is how many grams you require.
Research suggests that vegetarianism does offer a number of benefits – it's linked with a reduced risk of a variety of chronic diseases; it may save you money and it does appear to have less of an impact on the planet. However, non-vegetarians can also reap the benefits of enjoying a diet rich in plant foods, and there are benefits to including lean meats and seafood in your diet. Moreover, you don’t have to give up meat to save money – becoming vegetarian can be costly if you don’t stick to a budget. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between – just one meat-free day a week can make a big difference to the planet and your wallet. Ultimately, whether you choose to go vegetarian or not, everyone could benefit from increasing the amount of plant-based foods, and lowering the amount of saturated fat, in our diet.
For your reference, in this article we define vegetarians as those who do not eat any kind of meat (including fish) but do consume animal products such as milk and eggs (also known as lacto-ovo vegetarians).