For many years, the standard understanding among doctors and nutritionists was that vegetarians and vegans consume healthier diets, leading to a decreased risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, and other health conditions. And in theory, they’re right. When carefully balanced, vegetarian diets may be healthier than those of omnivores. On the other hand, many Americans lack knowledge of nutrition and by adopting a vegetarian diet, they risk serious nutritional deficits and associated health problems.
Nutritional Deficits And Cultural Considerations
There are countless nutrients, including vitamins, fats, and amino acids, that can only be acquired from animal-based sources. Fish oil, for example, is vital for healthy brain development, explains naturopathic doctor Claudia Guy, because the brain is 60-70% fatty tissue. Even at the level of fetal development, insufficient consumption of fish oil can cause neural tube defects, and in early childhood, problems with attention and cognitive development.
Of course, those who aren’t strict vegans may take fish oil as a supplement in order to bridge this nutritional gap – but this only applies to those individuals who know enough about individual dietary requirements to make such an informed decision. The larger problem, then, is that the majority of Americans lack this information.
Encouraging Americans to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet, then, would require a massive educational campaign to change how they eat. In addition to insufficient omega-3 DHA and other fatty acids, most would experience a significant drop in available sources of calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin B12. Not only are humans not meant to be herbivores, teaching Americans, who eat an average of 185 pounds of meat each year to eat differently while meeting their nutritional needs could cause a spike in countless nutritionally-based diseases.
While heart disease is a serious risk associated with excessive meat consumption, particularly red meat, poorly balanced vegetarian and vegan diets present their own dangers. For example, other than by consuming specific types of seaweed or enriched foods, vegetarians and vegans have a hard time getting enough B12 in their diets. Without it, though, they run the risk of serious health problems such as megaloblastic anemia, an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, and neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Another common nutritional issue that arises among vegans and vegetarians is an imbalance in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Many individuals believe that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are equivalent, and in an attempt to meet their dietary needs ultimately induce a serious imbalance. While an appropriate ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in an individual’s diet is 1:2, the average American consumes a ratio closer to 1:20 due to overconsumption of nuts and seeds. Though hard data is scarce, rodent studies suggest overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acid may actually be a greater contributor to heart disease, obesity, and depression than simply eating meat in the first place.
The major arguments for widespread vegetarianism or veganism are based on public health, but the secondary argument is environmental. Meat is a highly resource intensive source of nutrients and has a large carbon footprint. A major factor in global warming, factory farming may even be a player in the deoxygenation of the oceans. According to climate scientists, changes in ocean temperatures and oxygen saturation could actually eliminate many aquatic species, destroying key elements of a healthy environment.
Not only do aquatic species contribute to overall environmental health, they’re also a source of many key nutrients that are difficult to get from other plant or animal sources, such as omega-3 DHA. While humans can get omega-3 fats from plants, it’s a different form – ALA – and conversion between the two is inefficient. Omega-3 DHA comes exclusively from fish and krill, and while eating large quantities of factory-farmed meat can destroy these aquatic sources indirectly, not eating meat at all can cause even more serious deficiencies.
There’s no simple solution to the nutritional shortcomings that plague the American diet, but transitioning the entire population to a vegan or vegetarian diet is among the least promising option. Both meat and fish play key roles in complete nutrition. If Americans shift their emphasis to more ethical production and decreased consumption – their average meat consumption is greater than nutritionally necessary – it is possible to reduce disease risk and hit all dietary requirements.