The “Plant Based” Diet: Medicine’s Misguided Effort To Save People And The Planet

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Article submitted by Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD

Recently the owners of Cafe Gratitude received death threats for introducing animals on their organic farm and eventually eating the meat. The social media kerfuffle exposes more than a few cracks in the push for everyone to eat a plant based diet.
Too often “plant based” is merely code for a vegetarian or a vegan diet, but that wasn’t always true. Plant based eating originally aimed to increase intake of fruits and vegetables, a laudable goal considering the national average holds steady at just over one serving a day for vegetables (and that’s including potatoes), and just less than one serving a day for fruit.
Today advocates of plant based eating cite everything from personal health to climate change to elevate their cause. Both vegans and vegetarians lean into the medical community for validation, and they get it.


THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY WEIGHS IN

While debating the merits of a plant based diet, too many health care practitioners ignore the bio-dynamics of growing food. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine states that “The vegetarian diet is the optimal way to meet your nutritional needs”, and offers a 21 day vegan kick start program.
The more studied and thoughtful Health Care Without Harm presses for more plant based foods and eating less meat though their Healthy Food in Health Care Program. They reference a dated and inaccurate UN Food and Agriculture Organization report which claims 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are directly linked to beef and dairy production.
HOW WE GROW FOOD MATTERS
Nicolette Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer, rancher, vegetarian, and author of Defending Beef, challenges this figure. Currently the United Nations Environment Program pegs greenhouse gas emissions at 13% for all of agriculture. Recent calculations by Frank Mittlehoern of UC Davis suggests that the number is closer to 14% globally and 4.2% domestically in the US. However, preoccupation with GHG emissions fails to consider what grazing animals contribute to reversing climate change. Effectively managed grazing animals help sequester carbon and improve soil ecology, enhance water retention and flow, protect against drought, and reverse desertification. Returning animals to grasslands instead of fattening them in confined agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs) holds a key to reversing climate change.


HEALTHY FOOD IN HEALTH CARE: A GOOD EFFORT NEEDS SOME HELP

The Healthy Food in Health Care initiative encourages more locally sourced foods, more organic produce, as well as recommendations to purchase grass fed, pastured and cage free animals products. The program effectively targets the metabolic and environmental harm from chemically intensive agriculture and the industrialized food supply. All good.
However, the program also encourages hospitals to serve less meat, as well as no meat. A 2013 evaluation of participating hospitals in California reports the following:

  • Offer at least one protein-balanced vegetarian or vegan menu option at each meal for patients and in cafeteria (24/33)
  • Cafeteria menu is meat-free one day per week (9/33)
  • Patient menu is meat-free one day per week (6/33)
  • Reduce portion sizes of meat and poultry offered in patient and cafeteria meals (12/33)
  • 50% or more of daily meals served are vegetarian or vegan (3/33)

GROWING PLANTS HARMS THE PLANET
A push for plants over animals assumes that growing plants has no negative impact and implies that even grass fed meat contributes to environmental and metabolic harm. However, Matthew Englehart , the former vegan and organic farmer of Cafe Gratitude claims, “Agriculture is most violent destructive force on the planet. It has caused the extinction of more species than any other activity.”
Ironically, genetically modified soy used extensively in pseudo meat products presents unique challenges for vegetarians. GMO soy allows greater use of glyphosate, the most pervasively used herbicide in America. As an antimicrobial agent, glyphosate kills off the very microbial and fungal networks in soil responsible for carbon sequestration. The FDA and USDA conveniently haven’t measured glyphosate residue in food, so we know little about its impact on our own gut microbes.


NATURE GETS THE SCIENCE RIGHT

Nature gets the science right and regenerative agriculture honors how nature really works. We’re not likely to save the planet eating mostly plants, and vegans aren’t necessarily healthier than conscientious omnivores. Ultimately, we need the animals, whether we eat them or not.

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