Plant-based diets can have environmental, health benefits

Plant-based diets can have environmental, health benefits
Cut-up potatoes, fresh-picked peas, carrots and onions in a pot with a ladle and a spoon.

For the majority of Americans, meat is the main course in most meals, providing iron, protein and other essential nutrients for our bodies. However, new research on how plant-based diets affect the environment and our bodies are surfacing.

As a collegiate athlete and environmental studies major, I wonder if a plant-based diet is the most sustainable option that also provides students the nutrients they need to compete at a high performance level both in the classroom and in their sports?

There are numerous nutritional and physiological benefits with a plant-based diet. Meat contains saturated fats that can lead to high cholesterol, which increases inflammation. Research has shown that a diet rich in plants decreases blood pressure and cholesterol, causing anti-inflammatory effects, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The article added that a plant-based diet also allows for better blood flow due to a thinner blood viscosity. This allows for blood to carry oxygen to the muscles more quickly. This process, as well as the antioxidants found in plants, leads to an increase in VO2 max.

Ben Haberman, freshman cross country and track athlete at Augustana University, has noticed the positive effects that a plant-based diet has on his body and the environment.

“I became vegetarian because my parents just raised me that way, Haberman said I never really made the decision myself. But my parents always gave us the option. But I always felt to stay true to my vegetarian roots. I was raised vegetarian, but I definitely found the love of it when I was younger.”

Haberman believes a vegetarian hasn’t hindered his athletic performance

“Not really, if anything, I think it’s improved it. I did a lot of my own research because I thought maybe I should start eating meat. But I have seen way more people turning vegetarian and vegan versus going the other way,” Haberman said. “I definitely notice I don’t get as sore as often. My teammates and I would do the same workouts, and the next day they would be sore and some of the days I would be completely fine. I don’t know if that’s due to a vegetarian diet, but I do know there are a lot of amino acids from meat and dairy that cause inflammation.”

Not only does research suggest that a plant-based diet is optimal for performance, there is research that points to vegetarianism and veganism as a prominent way to reduce one’s environmental footprint. According to another PCRM article about vegan diets, the world’s top producers in dairy and meat products emit more greenhouse gases than the top oil production companies. A normal-sized hamburger consumed at a fast food restaurant is equivalent to driving a car 7,196 miles. Eating 150 grams of beans every day for a year is equivalent to driving a car 93 miles.

Nik Burow, a philosophy and environmental studies major at Augustana, switched to a vegetarian diet his freshman year after the Global Lead Food Scientist (an Augustana alumni) at the nonprofit organization World Wildlife Fund, Brent Loken, spoke to a First Year Seminar class about the benefits on health and sustainability in going vegan. Now, Burow personally experiences these beneficial effects of vegetarianism, but a period of trial and error occured before he found what works best for him.

“It took me a while to figure out how to eat as a vegetarian. For a while I found myself running out of energy and becoming sort of lethargic and things like that,” Burow said. “But over time I sort of found my sweet spot. Everyone’s body is different and most people I know who are vegan or vegetarian have had similar experiences when making the switch. Another nice thing I discovered was that I began to look much more fit, I put on a lot more muscle when I exercise than I did before, I’ve never really held nice muscles in high regard, but I can’t deny that I feel good about the way I look and the way I feel.”

A plant-based diet has numerous benefits. But if not carefully planned out, this diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Meat and dairy products are high in protein, iron and nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium, according to the National University of Natural Medicine. A plant-based diet also causes a decrease in essential fatty acids, which are important for brain and nerve function, hormone production, blood pressure regulation and other physiological processes, an article on Down To Earth Organic and Natural said.

Another issue with plant-based diets is the loss of the vitamin B12. B12 is important for the health of blood and nerve cells, and helps make DNA, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Plants do not produce vitamin B12, as it is found mostly in animal products. However, fortified plant-based milks and cereals, as well as nutritional yeast, contain this important vitamin. Supplements are another way to consume vitamin B12, Medical News Today says.

Haberman has not experienced difficulties with fueling properly as an athlete. However, supplements are part of Haberman’s routine to ensure he is providing his body with the nutrients he needs.

“In general, I don’t think I struggle with protein at all. There is protein in so much stuff out there. There are beans, tofu, peanut butter, even greens,” Haberman said. “I have never really struggled with it, but I do take pea protein powder. And that is just because, for me, as an athlete, I like making sure I am getting that protein in. I don’t really notice a difference. It’s more of just a safety net. I take a multivitamin along with B12 and D3. Most of it I would be taking anyway. B12 is just something I added because I probably wouldn’t be getting it because I don’t eat meat.”

Another negative that both Haberman and Burow have experienced with their vegetarian lifestyles are the options, or lack thereof, when dining at various restaurants or eating at Augustana.

“Finding food at restaurants when you go out with friends who maybe aren’t vegan [or] vegetarian or just in general can be difficult, especially in places like the Midwest where we have a pretty high appreciation for meat,” Burow said.

Haberman appreciates the options at the Augustana commons but would like more variety.

“Obviously, there are vegetarian and vegan options here,” Haberman said. “There are no complaints. But it’s more in general that I would like to see more varieties instead of just the one vegetarian line.”

Whether the decision to become a vegetarian or vegan is due to environmental values or health benefits, one thing is certain: Plant-based diets are a growing trend. This new diet could change the way meat industries operate and the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted through food production.