The unofficial slogan of Wisconsin is, “Beer, Brats, and Cheese.” So, you can imagine my disconnect with people here, when they eventually find out I don’t eat meat. Usually, the interaction consists of them asking if I am malnourished or getting enough protein. I will tell them yes I am, and it is surprisingly easy to do so.
They then express how they could never cut meat out of their diet, because it is such a focus it is hard to imagine a meal without a slab of beef or chicken being the centerpiece. This is actually a good point. Our culture is heavily influenced by the consumption of livestock and livestock-based products, that not consuming them violates many social norms and puts you at risk of being ridiculed. Where this becomes dangerous, is when most people over consume these products.
Especially in first world countries, it is obvious that overconsumption is an epidemic. The obesity rates in the US are currently the highest they have ever been. A lot of this can be attributed to huge portion sizes coupled with consumerism, but much of it is likely caused by mental conditions. Some of my more overweight friends are subject to what they call stress eating. Also suffering from conditions like depression, when an episode begins so does another burger.
Today in the US, mental health rates are astronomically high. According to Mental Health America (MHA), about 1 in 5 adults suffers from a mental health condition. To give a frame of reference, that is greater than the populations of New York and Florida combined. We only see it getting worse in new generations where the rates of severe depression in youth increased from 5.9% in 2012 to 8.2% in 2015.
Of these kids, 76% of them have received insufficient or no treatment at all, and 56% of American Adults with a mental illness are not receiving treatment either. Those with no support find vices to cope with their depression, and many times overeating and substance abuse come along with it.
The American Psychological Association recognizes that “Obesity is also frequently accompanied by depression and the two can trigger and influence each other.” Usually, overeating and depression come in cycles, where one precedes the other creating a continuous loop that fosters obesity.
With about 40% of adults and 19% of youth classifying as obese, there is an obvious problem with mental health and food consumption.
Treating obesity can help decrease feelings of depression, giving a positive view of an individual’s self. Additionally, healthy diets stimulate biological factors that increase functionality and activity in the brain, helping to treat the depression. This makes sense, because if what we put in our body affects our actions like alcohol does, then why would the food we eat not affect our outlook and brain functionality.
In our society, we are expected to eat certain foods to not fall out of the norms. Diets that consist heavily of carbs, red meat and dairy are sold and reinforced to be consumed everywhere. However, diets based on these goods are not sustainable for practical mental and physical health. Excessive livestock items are not a suitable source of energy for replenishing the molecules and compounds in the brain. It is because of this, you feel groggy after a big meal that consists mostly of red meats or dairy.
When we eat, your body absorbs the nutrients from the foods eaten. This includes vitamins, compounds, and elements that your brain will absorb and use to work productively.
Each food has a certain amount of energy that it can give to the consumer. It starts with the sun and the growth of plants, which have the greatest amount of energy able to be given. When the animals eat the plants and absorb its nutrients and energy, some of the energy from the plants is lost leaving less available for whatever consumes it next.
When we consume cow meat, we are receiving the leftover nutrients and energy the cow has gotten from eating plants. Creating a diet that is based more on plants allows more usable energy for the consumer. When that energy is brought into the body, it has a higher utility and improves brain function.
According Forks Over Knives a plant-based diet mixed with exercise, reduces the effects of depression in individuals. This is because of the consumption of the nutrients and energy from plants, rather than filtered or reduced content from meats. A plant-based diet also provides a healthier range of consumable products.
Battling obesity also means battling other ailments, such as heart conditions. The Oxford Vegetarian Study affirmed that chances of heart disease are 24% less likely to be present in lifelong vegetarians and 57% less likely to be present in lifelong vegans than lifelong meat eaters. In addition, those who have switched to a plant-based diet who had type 2 diabetes saw a serious reduction in severity and in many cases a reversal of it.
Today about eight million adults in the US are vegetarians and about two million have become vegans. Scientists have established new research that discerns with the adoption of a vegan diet could help avoid eight million deaths, and the widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet could help save 7.3 million lives by the year 2050.
Many have joined the movement to a healthier and more productive life, but the benefits extend beyond health. The widespread adoption of a plant-based diet would save trillions of dollars in transportation and medical bills. A healthier life leads to fewer visits to the doctor, and less prescription medication being purchased surrounding ailments due to obesity and mental health. Less consumption of meats will lead to a reduction in the livestock industry. When it comes to sustainability, that would be a huge win for the environment.
The livestock industry is responsible for 75% of global deforestation. According to Food Emissions, about ten million square kilometers of land will be cleared by the year 2050 to meet the food demand. Currently, we produce about twice the amount of food necessary to sustain the global population, but the excess is either wasted or goes to feed livestock.
Not to mention the amount of water it takes to produce the meat and other products that come from animals is unsustainable. For example, it takes upwards of 1000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk, whereas one gallon of soy milk only takes about 200 gallons to produce. Meaning that one gallon of soy milk is about 5 times more water friendly than one gallon of milk is.
Runoff is also a huge problem in the livestock industry. Toxins in the animal’s waste are washed into freshwater systems, contaminating them and depleting sources of oxygen effectively killing the organisms that live there.
Including runoff, the livestock industry produces 65% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions, which has a global warming potential 296 times more than carbon dioxide per pound. According to Cowspiracy, carbon dioxide emissions are estimated to increase 20% by the year 2050, but agriculture emissions are estimated to increase by 80% due to a projected figure associated with meat and dairy consumption.
Specialists at the World Bank Group dictate that animal agriculture is the cause of 51% of all human-caused climate change using the global standard for measuring greenhouse emissions. By purchasing less or no animal-based products, this would drastically reduce the number of greenhouse gases being released into our systems, and save billions of gallons of water.
Going vegetarian or vegan is a big step in anyone’s lives. Many people don’t want to stop eating meat completely, and there are still ways to have a plant-based diet and eat meat. A Mediterranean eating pattern would reduce the amount of meat you eat by preparing vegetarian or vegan meals most of the week and only eating meat for select meals a couple times a week. Substituting fish in for red meat is also a sustainable way to consume meats.
When choosing to consume fish, it is important to make sure that it comes from a fresh water source and is locally sourced. The ocean is overfished, and hundreds of species are becoming endangered, including ones that are not the target of fishing. Animals like sharks, dolphins, and other sea creatures are accidentally collected in fishing nets and by the time they are received on deck to be thrown back, they have already perished.
The same goes for when consuming red meats like a cow. Locally sourced livestock is much more sustainable to eat than meat being shipped in from other countries. Less water is being used and it will taste better because it won’t be processed to travel thousands of miles.
If deciding to go vegetarian or vegan, it is also important to have a diverse diet. Just like when eating meat before, you can’t just eat one or two foods and expect to be healthy. Mushrooms, nuts, lentils, quinoa, and beans are a few examples of wholesome foods that will satisfy the protein requirements. Broccoli, kale, spinach, peppers, onions, and corn are good sources of antioxidants. Fruits are loaded with vitamins and amino acids, and whole grains are high in fiber with other varying nutrients.
Making the switch can be difficult due to different pressures, but it will improve your moods, health and the well-being of the planet that will be passed down to future generations.