Vegetarianism, once the province of hippies and back-to-the-land types, has taken on a new luster as an increasing number of benefits accrue to the diet, which in its simplest iteration shuns the consumption of animal flesh. Motivations for skipping meat range from health benefits to environmental stewardship to compassion for animals. In honor of World Vegetarian Day, we offer some reasons why you should be a vegetarian. And in the interest of being fair and balanced, we offer some reasons why you should skip the whole practice and embrace your inner carnivore.
Note that there are varying degrees of vegetarianism. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy products and eggs, on the theory that taking some milk and eggs from animals is the equivalent of taking apples from a tree—you don’t hurt either by consuming its products. Pescatarians eat fish but not the meat of terrestrial animals. And vegans won’t touch anything that comes from another animal, hoofed, clawed or finned. For the purposes of this look, however, we’re limiting ourselves to vegetarians, not vegans.
- It’s Good for the Earth. A 2006 United Nations report said that the world’s supply of livestock generates more greenhouses gasses than all of the world’s cars and trucks combined, or 14.5% of all the world’s greenhouse gasses produced in a year. And a CNN report presented last month, for which the author consumed two thirds of a pound of Texas brisket, found that the production of the meat and the preparation of that meal generated as much greenhouse gas as driving a car 70 miles. Eating a salad would be like riding a bike.
- Show compassion for animals. Did you see the film “Fast Food Nation”? If so, you probably already are a vegetarian: the scenes in which cattle are raised and slaughtered for human consumption were so disturbing—and let’s face it, gross—that they would have put a caveman off his beef. Vegetarians can absolve themselves of any guilt for the frequently inhumane way in which animals are treated.
- Reduce Your Risk of Cancer. Studies have shown a reduction in cancer rates among people who stop eating meats. Meat is low in fiber, which has been shown to have cancer-preventing properties, and some of the compounds created by cooking meat have been linked to the incidence of certain kinds of cancers. Plus, meat has saturated fat, the consumption of which is linked to breast, colon and prostate cancer.
- Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease. That same saturated fat is a big risk factor in heart disease. Meat contains the bad kind of cholesterol, which can form plaque on the walls of your veins and arteries and lead to heart attacks. Vegetarians who avoid saturated fats (like those found in cheese and eggs) have been found to have a lower risk of heart attacks than meat-eaters.
- Live Longer. A study conducted over 12 years by Oxford University researchers found that vegetarians outlived meat-eaters by 6 years. They posit that the nutrients found in a plant-based diet may help fend off certain forms of illnesses; meat-eaters don’t get the nutrients in the same abundance.
And now for a different point of view: here are three reasons why you should eat meat:
- It’s Good For Your Bones. The primary building bock of bones is calcium, and the best source of dietary calcium is dairy products and meat. It’s possible to get enough calcium for optimal bone health by eating leafy green vegetables, but you need to eat 1200 calories worth of vegetables to get your recommended daily allowance of calcium; 700 calories of meat and milk will help you get there. If you’re watching calorie intake—and we all should—animal products seem like a good idea.
- The Paleo Diet Works. You’ve heard of the Paleo, or Caveman Diet. Simply stated, you get rid of any food that wasn’t available to a caveman—soda, processed foods, wheat, corn, potatoes—and subsist on meat, fish and non-starchy vegetables. It works like crazy. As any high school wrestler knows, if you want to make weight, you cut carbs. And Paleo is all about cutting carbs. It doesn’t need to be all meat all the time, nor should it be: we all need to eat our vegetables. But getting rid of carbs, even complex ones, can lead to a stripped down body if combined with rigorous training.
- It’s Delicious. Meat, in all its many forms, is simply awesome. Yes, beef is a great source of iron, which your body uses to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells. And yes, fatty fish delivers heart-healthy omega-3 oils. That’s just gravy. The simple fact is that eating a grilled steak—with or without a good red wine—is one of life’s great pleasures. Pulled pork is a delight. Rare tuna steaks, served with a bracing dose of wasabi, is something we think about late at night. To go without meat can mean depriving yourself of one of the best things life has to offer.