One of our blog regulars (Trevor) posed an excellent comment/observation to the last entry that I felt needed to be addressed on the main page here. He said: “From a purely nutritional (as opposed to ethical) point of view, I find it interesting that the meat substitute would always be advisable over the real thing.”
Here are a few thoughts:
The Big Picture First
My philosophy on eating is never “purely nutritional.” It’s always mindful of the bigger picture…how our food choices affect animals, our fellow humans and the planet we all share. As I’ve written about extensively, we can no longer afford NOT to look at the big picture consequences of animal agriculture. The exponential growth of our population is magnifying the damages at an alarming rate. Our world population is expected to be 50% higher within the next 50 years, and we can barely sustain things now.
Likewise, the violence we are cultivating among the 50-plus-billion animals worldwide who are exploited and killed every year will increase commensurately to this population explosion. And the misappropriation of our limited resources will continue to propagate world hunger, because we are feeding roughly five times the amount of our crops to farmed animals than to humans. Simply put, animal agriculture is absolutely unsustainable on the long-term.
But as it turns out, the way of eating that’s most mindful of the big picture, is also the healthiest for us humans. This is no accident, because Mother Nature is no idiot.
That said, let’s say that your concern happens to only be nutritional for now. One of the common misconceptions in this debate is that these “vegan meats” are more processed and less natural, whereas “real meat” is less processed and more natural, making it preferable (again, from a nutritional perspective). But such is not the case! Over 95% of all animal products come from the world of industrialized farming (fish, too), where many of these animals have been subjected to varying degrees of bacterial contamination, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, and growth hormones. Additionally, the amount of processing that goes on between when the animal is alive in confinement, and when their meat or milk winds up on your dinner table, is astounding. And all this is to say nothing of some of the inherent dangers in these foods, even in scenarios where an animal or a fish has been raised “organically,” or killed in the wild.
So let’s get a perspective on exactly what all you’re potentially subjected to with “the real thing,” as opposed to vegan meat substitutes.
The Inherent Health Dangers of Animal Products
Show me an area of any country around the world where there is a high consumption of animal products, and I’ll show you commensurately high incidents of heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes and other diseases. Across the board, animal products contribute to a wide range of health problems, both minor and major. Let’s look at a few of the main reasons why:
1. Acidic blood: They create acidic conditions in the blood stream, which makes for a fertile environment for cancer and a long list of other ailments.
2. Unhealthy fats: They are typically dense with unhealthy fats, which are notoriously artery clogging. For example, an Oscar Meyer beef frank has about three teaspoons of beef fat per serving, while your average hamburger patty carries about eight teaspoons. Meanwhile, your typical breakfast link gets you about five teaspoons of lard. So if you’re looking to increase your chances of heart failure and stroke, these are all excellent choices!
3. No fiber: All animal products are devoid of fiber, which means that they tend to accumulate in the intestines and colon, compromising the elimination system and emitting toxins.
4. Contaminants: Most animal products contain varying degrees of contaminants. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that about one out of every four Americans will get food poisoning each year, with contaminated animal products heading the list of causes. On the other side of this coin, we can’t forget about the quantifiable harm that’s caused by the ungodly amounts of drugs and antibiotics used in over 95% of all commercially sold animal products. Many of these drugs are used to control bacterial-related infection. But one of the many negative consequences this can have on humans is the proliferation of antibiotic resistant infections.
Additionally, most fish have such a high amount of mercury that even the most conservative of health agencies suggest either limited amounts or the outright omission of fish for both pregnant women and children. You will often hear: “Fish is healthy for you, but because of all the mercury, limit yourself to only two servings a week.” What the hell, people? That would be like saying that tobacco has some kind of magical antioxidant in it, but only smoke five cigarettes per week to reduce your chances of lung cancer.
5. Compounded Toxins: Most animal products these days include factory farm related chemicals (like growth hormones and antibiotics), and environmental-related toxins (like mercury and a host of other toxins from fellow animals). These toxins find a cozy home in the animal’s fatty tissue through a process known as bioaccumulation. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that animal foods are higher on the food chain.
Many of these toxins are then compounded because virtually every food animal these days has been fed other animals, most of whom were either sick to begin with and/or were subjected to an extreme amount of toxins themselves. This is especially the case with fish, because they’ve eaten other smaller contaminated fish, who have eaten other still smaller contaminated fish, and so on.
6. Even More Toxins: Finally, depending on how this food is cooked, another level of toxicity presents itself. When most any type of animal muscle is cooked at high temperatures, either through broiling, roasting or frying, this causes the production of powerful cancer-causing compounds like heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These substances actually affect the cells on the DNA level, creating mutations in the blood and setting the stage for various forms of cancer, particularly of the prostate.
The Nutrient Density Criteria
Nutrient density is the evaluation of a food from the perspective of how many calories it has vs. how many nutrients it yields. For example, an apple has a high nutrient density because it’s loaded with all kinds of good stuff like fiber, live enzymes, vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidant flavonoids, but only has 80 to 100 calories, so you are getting a lot of bang for your caloric buck.
When you look at the pros and cons of animal products from this standpoint, you will always see a glaring imbalance. Even if we set aside the above downside points, you will still come to the conclusion that, for the amount of total calories and fat in animal products, you really aren’t getting much out of them beyond some protein and a limited number of other nutrients.
• All animal products have zero fiber, live enzymes, or phytonutrients.
• Most animal products have zero carbs and little, if any, antioxidants to speak of.
• Animal products, in general, have surprisingly limited amounts of the full range of nutrients we need. Meanwhile, many of the nutrients they do have are negated on some level by the toxic effects inherent to eating these foods.
• The majority of fat in most animal products is the unhealthy kind. (And remember, dietary cholesterol only exists in animal products.)
Vegan meat substitutes, on the other hand, are far more nutrient dense foods by comparison, largely because there is considerably less of a downside to them. You get similar amounts of protein, B-12 and other nutrients that you get from animal products, but the “delivery system” usually includes some amount of fiber and, in the case of many soy products, anti-cancer plant compounds like isoflavones.
Granted, as mentioned in the last entry, these vegan substitutes (like soy-based chicken, burgers and cold cuts) are heavily processed foods that are typically high in sodium and sometimes high in fat, so you should use them sparingly. (As opposed to edamame, which is the actual soybean, or even tofu, which tends to be less processed than these other items.) Also, we should point out that, the more a food has been processed, the fewer of these beneficial components they’ll have.
Still, the bottom line remains: when given the choice between a “real” burger and a veggie burger, you are always better off going the veggie route…for more reasons than one.