A world without animal agriculture is far from “sustainable,” contrary to the recent report from the Eat-Lancet Commission claims. It’s true that consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables every day is a smart step to promote health and prevent chronic disease. However, humans have evolved as omnivores, which is mirrored in our nutritional requirements. And, our diet is plant-based—and has become even more so at a time when obesity has increased. In fact, the notion that the American diet is meat-centric may be one of the biggest myths in nutrition. Meat is one of the few food groups that, on average, we are eating in amounts close to the Dietary Guidelines targets.
Importantly, people are eating more plant foods, including refined grains, but not more fruits and vegetables. The simple, science-based fact is that we need to help people eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods from both plant and animal sources; meat and plant foods should be thought of as complementary, not competitive. And, we must continue to conduct research to better inform recommendations for a healthy, sustainable diet, rather than using limited modeling data and hypotheses as a basis for sweeping food and nutrition policy claims to eliminate or drastically reduce single foods or food groups.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the cattle who deliver high-quality protein to humans. Cows are an extremely efficient species. Their unique stomachs can digest what humans and other animals cannot, including crushed canola seeds, orange peels, corn husks, grains used in fermenting beer, and other agricultural remnants that would otherwise pile up in a landfill.
That’s one of the many sustainable benefits cattle offer: they do more than recycle—they upcycle inedible plants into beef, milk, and other high-quality protein products. They also create natural fertilizer that puts nitrogen and nutrients back into the soil during crop rotation periods.
Second, cattle produce wholesome, nutrient-rich food that promotes health at all life stages, with relatively few calories. Put simply, a plant-only food supply would result in people consuming more calories and fewer micronutrients. Consider, animal-derived foods not only contain high-quality protein, but long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, choline, calcium, zinc and bioavailable iron that are scarce among plant foods.
Vegans frequently divulge they can easily get enough high-quality protein from plants. This is unrealistic and impractical. Research continues to demonstrate that we may need more high-quality protein than currently recommended to promote strong bodies and minds throughout life. This is particularly important for subpopulations like older adults who lose muscle and bone at a faster rate, and therefore have a higher protein requirement to help preserve this loss. Children whose mothers have higher intakes of choline, found predominantly in egg yolks, meat and dairy products, during pregnancy have been shown to have enhanced cognition and perform better academically during school-age years. Ninety percent of Americans and 92 percent of pregnant women do not currently meet the recommendations for choline.
Strong data correlate the vegan and vegetarian food pattern with a higher risk of osteoporosis and low bone mass, one of the top 10 costs to the healthcare system, and a public health epidemic that affects more than 52 percent of Americans over the age of 50. Calcium, potassium and vitamin D, of course, are crucial for bone health. Plants contain calcium but in small quantities that are not efficiently absorbed, for the most part. Novel calcium tracer studies indicate that high protein helps to increase intestinal calcium absorption. This precise technology recently was utilized to conclusively define the calcium requirement at many life stages. Such technology is better suited to inform public or policy recommendations than observational cohort studies, which are more useful in identifying correlations.
The argument for moving towards an entirely plant-based diet is grounded in data constructed from very narrow assumptions of the food supply chain, agricultural practices and human nutrition science. We must make a significant investment in research to fully understand agriculture’s impact on the environment. Nutrition scientists have made numerous recommendations in the past grounded upon weak data, resulting in unintended consequences. Let’s honor science and the public by not making the same mistake.
The largest opportunity for a healthy, sustainable diet will come from reducing food waste, continued investment in new agriculture production technologies, more efficient supply chains, consuming fewer “empty” calories, and enjoying more balanced meals.
About the author: Dr. Taylor Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN is the Principal & CEO of the Think Healthy Group, Inc. and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University. Dr. Wallace has recently been referred to as “the nation’s premier food and nutrition guru” by the Huffington Post. He has published over 40 peer-reviewed studies and 5 university-level textbooks, received numerous prestigious awards in the fields of food science and nutrition, and is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Dietary Supplements and deputy editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.