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Dietary choices are front and center whether we talk about human health issues or the well-being of animals and the environment.

Let’s begin by discussing human healthcare.

The shocking fact is that the staggering cost of human healthcare in the US could be addressed simply by changing what we eat.

Did you know that…?

  • $2.8 trillion is spent every year on healthcare.
  • 75% of all healthcare costs are the direct result of individual behavior related to 4 lifestyle factors – tobacco and alcohol use, physical activity, stress, and food choices.
  • 75% of costs are related to preventable chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
  • 2/3 of Americans die from diseases related to obesity and diabetes.

Research shows that a shift from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a predominantly plant-based diet can prevent many of these chronic diseases.

As a matter of fact, a whole food, plant-based diet has been the only one scientifically proven to reverse cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

The Stunning Stats

Looking at the statistics, you will see that shifting to a whole food plant-based diet would:

  • Reduce risk of heart disease. Most whole plant foods contain little or no saturated fats, and those who eat a plant-based diet enjoy lower levels of total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol—key culprits behind cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduce cancer risk. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains reduces cancer risk while the consumption of red meat and dairy is directly linked to colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Studies show that plant-based diets can lower your risk of developing this (and other) debilitating metabolic diseases — by as much as 75 percent! Furthermore, diabetics who switch to a plant-based diet often can greatly reduce or even eliminate their dependence on medications.
  • Put the brakes on obesity. Plant-based eaters have lower body weight than their meat-eating counterparts. But that’s not all. Because whole plant foods are high in fiber and micronutrients (and low in energy density), they have a high satiety profile, and you feel fuller on fewer calories.
  • Lower blood pressure. Packaged and processed foods contain added sugars, oils, and sodium (SOS), known drivers of high blood pressure.
  • Increase longevity. Due to the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes, it is only logical that those who follow a plant-based diet have lower mortality rates.
  • Slash healthcare costs. The US alone spends trillions on treating mostly preventable diseases. By eating a plant-based diet, you decrease your risk of developing one of these conditions and help reduce healthcare costs across the country.

How Dietary Choices Affect the Planet

Shifting to a plant-based diet won’t just affect humans and their health–it will have a huge impact on the planet as well.

A transition to plant-based diets will:

  • Create a smaller carbon footprint. According to the United Nations, nearly 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions that are currently accelerating climate change are generated by the meat and dairy industries.
  • Save water. Did you know that between 1,800 and 2,500 gallons of water are required to produce only one pound of beef for food? On the other hand, you only need 108 gallons of water to produce a pound of corn or 138 gallons to produce a pound of wheat.
  • Reduce fossil fuel dependency. It takes about 2.2 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of a plant-based protein. By contrast, you need about 40 calories of fossil fuel energy for every single calorie of feedlot beef produced in the US.

Water, Water…Not Enough to Drink

Water might very well be the perfect example of how we need to think long and hard about how our food choices affect both people and the planet.

Today, close to 900 million people don’t have access to clean water.

Meanwhile, commercial meat production uses about 235 trillion gallons of water each year.

In California, where droughts are all too common and often devastating, you hear a lot about water usage.

Every day. Everywhere you go. Everyone is talking about water.

But here’s what is missing from our water discussion:

  • Private homes account for 4% of overall water usage in the state, so private conservation can have very little — if any — effect.
  • Nearly a million acres of land are devoted to growing alfalfa for hay, 95% of which is used to feed cows. Irrigating these crops costs the state 1.8 trillion gallons of fresh water every year.
  • Almonds, a crop directly in the crosshairs of the water debate, are not the culprit. In fact, the Pacific Institute says that 47% of the state’s water footprint is “associated with meat and dairy” production.

The numbers don’t lie. The average American eats 144 hamburgers, 245 eggs and 736 almonds per year. It takes nearly 103,000 gallons of water to make their hamburgers, about 13,000 to produce those eggs and only 736 gallons to grow the almonds.

  • Replacing 50 percent of animal products with whole plant foods in someone’s diet equals to a 30 percent reduction in that person’s food-related water footprint. Switching from a meat-based to a vegetarian diet reduces that water footprint by 60% while adopting a plant-based (vegan) diet cuts an individual’s water footprint by 90%.

When it comes to water, real change will only happen when we tackle our own dietary choices; we won’t make a dent on the problem simply by taking shorter showers or planting drought-tolerant plants in our garden.

Our Diet—How It Affects Animals

Finally, let’s turn to the subject of diet and how it is linked to animal’s health and well-being.

We humans have set a double standard.

One for animals that ‘taste good’.

And one for animals that make us ‘feel good’ — our pets.

This is a highly controversial subject because many of us feel internally conflicted when it comes to eating meat. On the one hand, we feel terrible about the thought of harming animals for our own enjoyment. On the other hand, we nevertheless like the taste and flavors associated with meat and can’t imagine living without it.

To resolve this paradox, we justify it, arguing that eating meat is acceptable because it is:

  • Necessary
  • Nice
  • Normal
  • Natural

The first argument (i.e. necessity) is based on the idea that eating meat is necessary for health–without meat, it is impossible to get the appropriate amount of protein, vitamins or minerals.

In many articles on this blog, including the one on essential amino acids and protein, we have demonstrated that this argument is untrue—meat is simply not necessary for a healthful, vibrant lifestyle.

The second ‘N’ (‘nice’) boils down to one fact only—we eat animals because they taste good. Meat—for millions—is delicious. But just because something tastes good does not mean that it is actually good for you.

That leaves us with the ‘natural and normal’ arguments, i.e. that it’s ‘natural’ for humans to eat meat and thus ‘normal’ to include it in our daily diet.

In terms of which animals we eat, however, ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ are all relative. For example, in the US, we would not dream of eating dogs while in parts of Asia this would be considered normal. Equally, while eating pigs is ‘natural and normal’ for millions, it is considered an absolute faux pas for millions of others for religious reasons.  In Europe, it is ‘normal and natural’ to eat horse meat while this would be considered abhorrent in the US. And so on.

In summary, using the above 4 N arguments help us cope with our internal conflicts about eating meat. We’ve drawn a moral line to make us feel better about eating animals, but that doesn’t make the line real.

All animals deserve to be shown the same kind of empathy and respect and care we show the animals we revere—whether they are our family pets or a sacred animal symbol.

It is absolutely possible (and really not that difficult) to learn to love foods that don’t harm animals. Understanding the flaws in the ‘4 N’ arguments is the first step in that direction.

It’s time to erase the line in our minds and start eating the foods that are good for us, good for the planet and ensure a better life for ALL animals.

Food Choices — It’s YOUR Responsibility

I’d like to close with one thought…

Food options are an individual choice.

Our health–our diet–depends on us and the choices we make–not just on doctors, nurses, or registered dietitians.

And it boils down to personal choice and actions.

At the end of the day, each and every one of us needs to participate wholly in our own healthcare.

As we have shown, diet is the one lifestyle habit that dramatically supports the health and well-being of humans, animals and the planet itself.

What we eat is ultimately our own choice as well as a personal responsibility.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.