If We Really Don’t Know What’s Right About Diet, What’s the Best Way to Be Wrong?
Plant-based diets versus animal-based diets
First, let’s begin by addressing a fundamental untruth in recent headlines. Plant-based diets are not advocating for the elimination total of animal protein from diets. Despite attention-grabbing headlines, there is no war on meat.
What if people advocating for whole-food, plant-based diets are wrong?
Let’s say that those of us recommending whole plant foods are wrong; what are you risking by listening to us? Time has proven that the world’s longest-lived peoples eat a primarily whole-food, plant-based diet. Put simply, even if we are wrong about whole foods, mostly plants being best for your health- they are clearly compatible with it. At worst, you wind up eating in a way that is entirely compatible with the best of health, even if not explicitly the reason for it.
What if people advocating more meat are wrong?
None of the longest lived, most vital peoples yet discovered eat meat predominant diets, or diets high in saturated fat- none of them eat diets high in added sugar either, by the way. And while we cannot say with absolute certainty that an excess of meat and saturated fat increases the risk for heart disease, there are a plethora of studies that attest they do. But that’s the least of it, because if you do get coronary disease you will probably find some cardiologist to clean out your arteries; you get to have your disease, and make it chronic, too. Modern medicine is not very good at making people healthy- only lifestyle, and the social factors underlying it tend to do that. But modern medicine is often quite good at making disease chronic by forestalling death
Diet and Planetary Health
The consensus among environmental scientists about meat and dairy is even greater than that of nutrition scientists. Producing plants to feed animals to produce meat for human consumption uses vastly more water than producing plants for direct human consumption; beef, compared to almost any other food, is literally off the chart In contrast, plant-based diets have consistency been ranked best for planetary health.
Unless all of the environmental scientists- experts in everything from life cycle analysis to conservation, sustainable agriculture to biodiversity- are wrong, too, then listening to the “more meat” camp and being wrong means potentially devastating effects on the world’s climate. It means less water to drink, but more floods. It means more droughts, stronger storms, and ever more frequent extinctions. In contrast, if the “more plants” camp is wrong about the best diet for health, listening to them will almost certainly improve planetary health.
Why Does This Matter?
In brief, if plant-based diet advocates are wrong, the worst-case scenario is a diet compatible with optimal health (just not necessary for it) and still massively beneficial to the environment and planet. If advocates of diets high in meat are wrong, the worst-case scenario is the depletion of life from years, with or without taking years from your life. You will simultaneously, almost certainly, be contributing to environmental degradation, water depletion, and global warming.
If we are obligated to eat despite the routinely broadcast doubts about diet and health, perhaps the best we can do is choose how to be wrong. In other words, what are you willing to risk?
- Poulain, Michel, Anne Herm, and Gianni Pes. “The Blue Zones: Areas of Exceptional Longevity around the World.” Vienna Yearbook of Population Research Volume 11 (2014): 87-108. doi:10.1553/populationyearbook2013s87.
- Souza, Russell J De, Andrew Mente, Adriana Maroleanu, Adrian I. Cozma, Vanessa Ha, Teruko Kishibe, Elizabeth Uleryk, Patrick Budylowski, Holger Schünemann, Joseph Beyene, and Sonia S. Anand. “Intake of Saturated and Trans Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of All Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Disease, and Type 2 Diabetes: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Observational Studies.” Bmj, 2015. doi:10.1136/bmj.h3978.
- “Planetary Health Alliance.” Planetary Health Alliance. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://planetaryhealthalliance.org/.
- Marinova, Dora, and Talia Raphaely. “Meat Is a Complex Health Issue but a Simple Climate One: The World Needs to Eat Less of It.” The Conversation. November 29, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://theconversation.com/meat-is-a-complex-health-issue-but-a-simple-climate-one-the-world-needs-to-eat-less-of-it-44006.
- “How Much Water Is Needed to Produce Food and How Much Do We Waste?” The Guardian. January 10, 2013. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jan/10/how-much-water-food-production-waste.
- Godoy, Maria, and Allison Aubrey. “Chew On This For Earth Day: How Our Diets Impact The Planet.” NPR. April 22, 2017. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/04/22/525113726/chew-on-this-for-earth-day-how-our-diets-impact-the-planet.