The China Study was the most comprehensive study in nutrition ever conducted, spanning 65 counties in China and resulting in over 8000 statistically significant associations between diet, lifestyle, and disease. They compared the plant-based rural diets in certain parts of China to the Americanized Western diet, which includes high amounts of meat. Not surprisingly, they found that Westernized parts of China experienced far higher incidences of Western diseases of affluence (including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and cancer), compared to those parts of China still consuming their whole food, plant-based fare.
The conclusion was that increased meat intake is responsible for the Western diseases of affluence.
Nobody’s Arguing that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is Healthy
The problem with this reasoning is that correlation does not equal causation. Absolutely, the Western diet stinks, but is it because we eat animal products? Here are a few other variables to consider:
- The average American consumes 130 lbs of sugar per year.
- Processed foods (including some of these nasty chemicals) make up 70% of the American diet
- Americans consume 60% more meat than Europe and four times more meat than in developing nations…but the vast majority was agriculture industry meat rather than grass-fed or organic (read here for why this matters… or read on, I’ll cover it.)
- Some 39% of our diet is comprised of dairy (most of which is non-organic… which means it has been pasteurized, skimmed, treated with antibiotics, and contains rBGH and rBST hormones.
Are Fat and Cholesterol Responsible for Heart Disease?
One of the arguments the China Study makes is that avoiding animal proteins leads to lower heart disease risk, because the Western diet includes far more fat and cholesterol than do the plant-based diets.
This is based on the false premise that cholesterol and fat cause heart disease. Cholesterol is not your enemy. High cholesterol is associated with heart disease, yes, but it does not cause heart disease. Cholesterol acts like a band-aid for your arteries when they’ve been damaged, and damage results from a number of other factors—among them cigarette smoke, excess sugar and especially diabetes. But your cholesterol would not need to increase if your arteries remained healthy.
In the same way, fat, in general, is not the enemy. Bad fat is the enemy. Bad fats prevent your cell membranes from functioning optimally, leading to inflammation and all kinds of problems… and bad fats are found in processed foods, fast foods, and agriculture industry meat.
What’s So Bad about Agriculture Industry Meat?
Feedlots are designed to make a profit, like any business. The more animals they can raise and slaughter in a given amount of time, the more profit they make. In order to maximize this turnover, however, conditions for the animals are poor… which is bad news even if you are not an animal activist. Because infection in rampant, dairy cows alone consume about 70% of the nation’s antibiotics, contributing to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
On top of that, to fatten up the animals for slaughter, they are fed grain (mostly corn) instead of grass. The problem is, their stomachs are not designed to digest corn. This leads to a weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to infection, increasing the need for antibiotics. Also, animals who consume corn instead of grass produce meat whose fat is 100% saturated, compared to the 50/50 ratio of saturated to polyunsaturated fats produced by grass-fed animals. Some saturated fat is necessary, but saturated fat in excess (leading to a relative deficiency of essential fatty acids) is clearly associated with inflammation.
If that weren’t enough, the corn these animals consume is genetically modified… and the evidence suggests that GMO foods lower the animals’ nutrient absorption. When we, in turn, eat the meat from these animals, this lower nutrient content gets passed along to us.
What’s Good about Organic and Grass-Fed Meat?
Organic, grass-fed animals are allowed to roam free (at least in theory) and consume their natural diet of grass. As a result, not only is the treatment of the animals significantly more humane, but the fat in the meat is about a 50/50 ratio of saturated fats to anti-inflammatory and heart healthy essential fatty acids, the nutrient content of the meat remains intact, and the necessity for antibiotics dramatically declines.
Additionally, adding meat and animal products to your diet provides a much more substantial serving of protein than most plant-based protein sources can provide.
Isn’t a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet Still Healthier?
Like anything else, it’s possible to be a healthy or an unhealthy vegetarian or vegan.
Anytime you switch from a diet containing high sugar, processed foods, and agriculture-industry animal products to a whole food-based diet, regardless of the specific diet you choose, you will get healthier. You will probably lose weight. Your blood pressure will likely normalize. Your cholesterol will drop. Joint and muscle pain will most likely decrease.
If you choose to avoid animal products, the main nutrients you will need to monitor and possibly replace are iron and B12, which are found primarily in meat. The lack of either or both of these can contribute to fatigue.
You will need to be vigilant about your protein intake, as you need adequate protein and fats to prevent the blood sugar roller coaster from a diet comprised primarily of carbohydrates, and to keep your gut flora balanced. Historically vegetarians relied on soy as a protein staple, but some 90% of soy in the US is genetically modified, and it is also so ubiquitous that it is now a very common allergen. The other major plant-based protein source, beans, contain carbohydrates that are difficult to break down, which can contribute to gas and bloating. For this reason, my vegetarian and vegan patients whose guts are not especially robust tend to have a harder time consuming adequate protein.
Additionally, the epidemic of gluten sensitivity eliminates wheat as a major dietary staple for many of us. This further limits the already restricted dietary options for many vegetarians.
In general, I encourage healthy animal protein consumption as part of a balanced, whole-foods diet, except for patients who abstain for religious or ethical reasons. However, there are certainly times when avoiding animal proteins to remove the added strain on the digestive system is necessary for optimal health.
And I will say this: If your choice is between whole food vegetarianism or veganism and the Standard American Diet, there’s no doubt that the former is healthier!
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone.