Is Vegetarianism Really Healthier?
I'd like to start off by saying that there are many reasons people choose to become either vegetarians or vegans, and if moral values or environmental concerns are your reasons, you should be respected for your beliefs.
However, some people choose vegetarianism, not for value-based reasons, but because they think becoming a vegetarian is a healthier way to live. If we are addressing the health aspects of vegetarianism, I may disagree with that argument.
Meat consumed in excessive amounts can be unhealthy, but in small doses, can offer many positive health benefits. If you think in terms of hunter-gatherer, plants were greatly accessible to early humans, but meat required a lot more work. The hunters may spend all day out searching for a good animal to feed their families. So logically it makes sense to assume that plants should be consumed in large amounts, while meat be consumed much less often.
Meat (and other animal products) is also higher in fat, calories, and certain substances which may be harmful to your health, like heterocyclic amines, which can cause cancer. What people fail to see (on so many things in life, not just food) is that no one food is all good or all bad.
And while meat does contain heterocyclic amines, it also offers vitamins and minerals that are more easily bioavailable than what is found in plant products. This means that your body will be more efficient at absorbing and using iron from a steak, than from spinach. If you were to attempt to get all of your iron from vegetable sources, you have to take in greater quantities of it to get enough (heme vs. non-heme iron). Vegetarians can meet all of their nutritional needs, if they are taking in larger amounts of food to compensate for the reduced availability and bioavailability of certain nutrients.
The other issue is that of amino acids. There are twenty common amino acids, nine of which are essential, meaning we can not make them, we must get them from our diet. In animal sources, these nine amino acids are in perfect balance. Plant sources, however, do not contain all nine, but only some of the essential amino acids, so we must consume what we call, "complementary proteins". Combining rice with beans is one way to do this.
Some erroneously think that soy is a complete protein; it is not. While it contains all nine essential amino acids, it doesn't contain enough of some of them. The only true plant source that is a complete protein is quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Quinoa is a great replacement for rice or pasta, but not something you are likely to consume daily.
Listed below is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of both animal and plant foods, from the lectures I have given.
I would certainly argue, though, that we need to become more concerned about where our meat is coming from and how farming techniques are affecting our health and environment. I can not advocate enough for supporting local farmers, food stores that support local and sustainable agriculture (like Whole Foods Market, co-ops, and small grocery stores and butcher shops), and practices that reduce the amount of chemicals used in farming.
If we practiced consuming meat in smaller quantities (since the average American consumes twice as much meat as needed), we would be able to work towards sustaining ourselves without the use of factory farming, which is better for the animals, our health and our environment.