Estimated reading time: 7 mins
The great debate: Plant vs Animal
One of the greatest debates that’s waged war across the fitness community for many years surrounds the role of animal products in our diets. Opinions are extremely contrasting (exacerbated by the promotion of big-budget documentaries like What the Health and Game Changers), with many arguing that intake of animal produce (meats and dairy products) results in unnecessary overconsumption of saturated fat, protein, hormones (present in meats), lactose, and cholesterol.
Proponents of the anti-animal produce movement will reinforce this stance by citing numerous scientific research papers demonstrating that plant-based diets are both very safe and provide consistent health benefits across a broad range of populations. It is also widely held among vegan advocates that vegetables, fruits and whole grains provide superior nourishment of important vitamin and minerals in contrast to animal products like milk or steak.
In contrast to this viewpoint, many will state that animal products are not deleterious when consumed in moderation, and in fact provide key components of the human diet necessary to facilitate essential nutrition.
So how do we know who’s right? Should we be going plant-based, or are animal products fine for us when consumed in the context of a balanced calorie-controlled diet?
Thankfully, research experts recently gathered to identify the points of both agreement and controversy between anti- and pro-animal product proponents to provide a consensus statement. I will discuss the important components from this analysis below to help guide your nutritional endeavours in the right direction.
Consuming animal products makes it easy to overconsume food that are densely packed with fats and proteins. Vegan diets avoid this issue but can lack key amino acids and nutrients if the diet is not properly structured.
An important note before we begin
While this article presents the facts and scientific findings on plant based and omnivore diets, it is important to note that optimal health can be achieved with both plant based and carnivore diets. A vegan diet often requires more work to ensure all macro and micronutrient targets are met (particularly amino acids such as leucine and vitamin B12). But this can be achieved with additional supplementation.
It is important to point out that this debate only focused on the health effects of vegan versus omnivorous diets, and thus did not discuss the potential ethical and environmental implications of each diet approach.
What the experts say: Should we avoid consuming animal products?
According to the research presented in this debate, including animal products as part of a balanced diet is healthy. Here are some of the key takeaways:
Humans are naturally omnivores, not herbivores, evolutionarily adapted to eat significant amounts of meat and animal products
Animal foods have been consumed by all human societies in history
Consuming animal products provides an array of essential nutrients, as well as meeting a variety of biosocial needs (part of our cultural heritage)
Exclusion of animal products from the diet undermines nutritional flexibility
Avoiding animal products could put vulnerable population groups at risk of obtaining adequate nutrition
Animal products are not harmful when consumed in the context of a balanced diet and contain nutrients that are not easily obtained from plants
The case that animal products are unhealthy is not supported by the research, especially clinical trials
All the benefits achieved by consuming plant foods can be derived from a balanced omnivorous diet
Many modern-day diseases were rare in ancestral populations who consumed large quantities of meat (often much larger quantities that typically consumed today)
Haem iron (the iron from meat) is a valuable nutrient for preventing iron deficiency, a major nutritional problem across the globe
The levels of natural hormones present in animal products like milk are not a health risk to humans
Plant compared with animal proteins provide fewer amino acids, have a lower biological value and cause less of an anabolic response
No research has demonstrated a causal relationship between the consumption of red meats and adverse health consequences
In many observational studies that showed a benefit to vegan diets have not been compared to an optimal, balanced omnivorous diet
A healthy diet should provide all the essential nutrition needed without going too far over or under your recommended daily calorie intake.
There is still more research needed
As you can probably guess, there are still a few issues that require a little more digging!
We are lacking well controlled research studies that keep all factors (other than the diet) as similar as possible. This is needed to compare both the nutrition and therapeutic effects of various subtypes of plant-based diets, as well as different types of omnivorous diets across all stages of life in a variety of different populations and cultural groups
The comparison of plant-based versus omnivorous diets for cardiometabolic effects needs further investigation, especially for specific subpopulations such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. Outcomes of interest should also include micronutrient intakes, and the effects on physical, mental, digestive, hormonal and autoimmune markers of health
Future research studies need to be adequately funded and carried out with the highest possible standards and research quality
There still needs to be more research to fully explore all the effects of a purely plant-based diet.
My hot takes from the plant vs animal debate
While a handful of studies may provide the impression that a non-meat diet approach is superior, a comprehensive analysis of all the research concludes that consuming animal products in the context of a balanced wholesome omnivorous diet is actually healthy.
Compared to an omnivore diet, a vegan diet requires more work to reach the required intake of essential amino acids (particularly leucine) for maximising muscle growth/retention, and vitamin B12. This often means additional supplementation is required.
Reaching required protein intake using plant sources may promote higher body fat levels (as was in the case of the Roman gladiators) through higher caloric load (PB sandwich versus beef).
There is no compelling evidence that a vegan diet is healthier or more sustainable than a diet comprising lots of fruit and vegetables, with lean animal proteins in moderation.
The Western diet is not unhealthy because of the lean animal produce consumed, it’s unhealthy because of the calorie dense, micronutrient poor, junk food... which just happens to often involve meat (cheeseburgers, hotdogs). Remove those and of course you will be healthier, but it is not from removing the meat per se.
I am all for people making their own choices surrounding their diet and there is nothing wrong with choosing not to eat meat or animal products if that choice is well-informed and supports your goals and ideals!
Question everything friends.
Neal D Barnard, Frédéric Leroy, Children and adults should avoid consuming animal products to reduce the risk for chronic disease: Debate Consensus, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 4, October 2020, Pages 937-940, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa237
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About the author
Jackson is a PhD candidate, accredited Sports Nutritionist, and competitive bodybuilder and boxer. He currently works at the School of Human Sciences, where he has completed a BSc in Sports Science and in Exercise & Health, and an Honours in Exercise Physiology. Jackson is also completing his PhD in the field of Nutrition where he is directing the first randomised controlled trial investigating the effects of intermittent vs continuous dieting on fat loss, muscle retention and muscle performance in resistance trained athletes.
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