One of the biggest health questions in current culture is whether to eat meat, especially with increasing worldwide calls to eat less meat to reduce stress on the environment. Raising livestock takes much more acreage than farmers need to get the same amount of food from plants, although how much more is a very complicated question.
Personally I’d rather see a planet with far fewer people, eating whatever they want, but I don’t see any kind of humane plan that can get us there. We seem headed toward a world of ten or eleven billion humans. Not a healthy prospect, in my opinion.
As for land use, we actually use half of our corn crop to produce ethanol to power vehicles – not for food, either vegetarian OR meat. That’s nutty if not downright criminal, if you ask me (nobody did. I bet they didn’t ask you, either).
For those of us mainly concerned about our health – not saving the whole world — studies favor plant-based eating. And a growing number of cancer studies show profound benefits for both cancer prevention and healing through a plant-based diet.
Where do I stand on all this? Naturally I’m going to tell you, but there are some other things you need to know first. . .
Let’s start with an important question: What happens to your body if you quit eating meat?
After all, homosapiens has been consuming meat for a couple of hundred thousand years, and we’ve all survived… will giving it up really help as much as health pundits say? Are there only benefits, or is there a downside too?
Here’s what happens to your body when you give up meat:
If and when you’re ready to take the plunge and cut meat out of your diet, here are some of the changes that are likely to take place in your body:
#1: Inflammation will go down. When your body reacts to any kind of harmful stimuli, whether it’s in the form of irritants or pathogens or damaged cells, the response is inflammation. It’s your immune system at work, protecting you from what’s not good for you.
The thing is, inflammation is likely to take place when you chow down on meat. This is because animal products are loaded with inflammatory compounds like saturated fats and endotoxins.
If you replace those inflammatory foods with plant-based foods, your diet becomes anti-inflammatory by default. Since plant-based foods are high in fiber and antioxidants, they’re going to have the opposite effect of meat.
In fact, in a study published by Complementary Therapies in Medicine, researchers found that a plant-based diet results in lower levels of the C-reactive protein, which doctors use to measure how much inflammation is in the body.
I can vouch for some of the benefits from personal experience. When on a no-meat, low-carb diet for ten weeks or so, I saw my allergies disappear and chronic pain reduced. I was doing other things as well – it wasn’t all about the food.
But it was a very hard program to stick to for life. I didn’t.
#2: Your gut will change. The importance of your microbiome in long-term health may be the only thing getting more lip service these days than giving up meat. That’s because the health of your microbiome – which is the collection of trillions of microorganisms in your body – is directly correlated to your own health.
The thing about eating meat and other animal products is that it can create something called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) in your gut. This is bad news because high levels of TMAO increase cholesterol and raise your risk for cardiovascular disease.
A plant-based diet, on the other hand, produces almost no TMAO, and at the same time, the high levels of fiber promote healthy gut bacteria. In addition, loads of conventionally raised animals are given hormones and antibiotics, which can shift our own beneficial bacteria in the same way taking antibiotics can.
Microorganisms are essential when it comes to keeping the tissue in your gut healthy. They also produce key nutrients, turn certain genes on and off, and help protect from cancer by training your immune system. Several studies now document the role played by microorganisms – or the lack thereof – when it comes to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, autoimmune disease, and liver disease.
#3: You might live longer. A study from the The Lancet Oncology showed that people who gave up lifestyle factors known to promote cancer and cardiovascular disease (like eating meat), essentially stopped “fraying at the ends” and aged more slowly.
That’s because we all have something called telomeres at the end of our chromosomes that are meant to keep DNA stable, much the way the plastic tips on shoelaces keep the laces from unraveling. Over time, our telomeres fray and get shorter, leading to aging and earlier death. But the nutrients in plant-based diets improve the way our cells repair damaged DNA, which effectively lengthens those essential telomeres.
This is probably a good place to say that the link between meat consumption and cancer is not proven. I recently had prostate cancer (early stage and curable, praise the Lord), and I had occasion to take a darned careful second look at whether I needed to stop eating meat completely.
I was not impressed with the evidence that a no-meat diet would help. More to come about my personal opinions in a moment.
#4: You might need to go elsewhere for certain vitamins. A common argument against giving up meat is that you’ll miss out on large amounts of protein and nutrients. That’s only partially true. With a determined effort you can get the nutrients from plant-based foods.
For example, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and iron are some of the top things to keep an eye on in a no-meat diet. But B12 can be found in large amounts in nutritional yeast and fortified foods, iron is abundant in leafy greens, beans, and raisins, and high quantities of omega-3s are found in chia seeds, hemp seeds, and algae snacks.
That bag of chips? Not the best replacement.
Certainly, this list makes it sound at least practical and maybe even smart to give up meat. But your body’s reaction also depends heavily on what you use to replace meat. You’re still technically a vegetarian if you live on ice cream and French fries, but you won’t be getting any of the real benefits of exchanging meat for a plant-based diet.
For truly better health, you’d need to cut out the meat along with processed and sugary foods while integrating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. Then you’re bound to see some real improvement.
My personal plan
What do I do? I eat meat several times a week, and I try to eat only organic meat, preferably grass-fed. I like meat, and I’m inclined to doubt that low-level consumption really poses a huge threat to health. I do think eating meat at 14 meals a week, not to say 21, is unhealthy. When I say “several” I mean three or four meals a week.
My private theory (unproven) is that the links between cancer and meat are more likely due to the antibiotics and hormones in the meat. I don’t know this for sure, so you’ll have to decide for yourself if a few helpings of organic meat per week are life-threatening.
I also think eating meat and fish is a far more practical way of getting those vital nutrients like B12, omega-3s and essential amino acids.
There’s also the problem that a high-carb diet is probably far more harmful than occasional meat. If you want to reap the maximum benefit from a tough, demanding lifestyle change, then give up carbs, not meat.
And I can tell you from experience that giving up carbs AND meat is difficult-to-impossible. After all, you have to eat something.
I’m a great advocate of moderation. You don’t have to go to extremes. One fact we do know for sure is that misery makes for a shorter life. Consider cutting back carbs, especially the “white foods” – potatoes, rice, wheat products. Consider cutting back meat to three or four times a week.
- “5 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat.” By Olivia Delong for ShareCare. https://www.sharecare.com/health/vegetarian-diets/article/things-happen-stop-eating-meat
- “C-reactive protein response to a vegan lifestyle intervention.” By Sutliffe JT, et al. Complement Ther Med. 2015 Feb;23(1):32-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2014.11.001. Epub 2014 Dec 3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25637150
- “Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study.” By Ornish D, et al. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70234-1. Epub 2008 Sep 15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18799354
- “Meat-Eating Among the Earliest Humans.” By Briana Pobiner for American Scientist. https://www.americanscientist.org/article/meat-eating-among-the-earliest-humans
- “This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Give Up Meat.” By Grant Stoddard for Vice, 2 November 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/bj4wj4/this-is-what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-give-up-meat
- “What Happens To Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat, According To Doctors.” By JR Thorpe for Bustle. 25 October 2019. https://www.bustle.com/p/what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-stop-eating-meat-according-to-doctors-19223048