Did you know that heart disease is the number-one killer in the U.S., followed closely by cancer? Approximately 600,000 people die of each of these diseases annually, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are also among the top-10 killers.
All of these diseases are preventable—and all of them are related to lifestyle.
A plant-based whole-foods diet is a powerful way to help prevent and even reverse these and other chronic, fatal diseases.
Help From a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet
Let’s look at the number-one killer. Researchers offered 198 patients with heart disease a program that encouraged the consumption of a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
Of the 89 percent of patients who complied with the diet, 81 percent experienced improvement, and 22 percent experienced a complete reversal of their heart disease.
Another study examined over 44,000 people and found that vegetarians had a 32 percent reduced risk of hospitalization and death from heart disease.
A plant-based diet also prevents cancer. Researchers studying 90,000 women concluded that those who ate a plant-based diet had a 15 percent reduced risk of all forms of breast cancer and a 34 percent decreased risk for one particular type of breast cancer.
Plant-based diets also reduce the risk of prostate cancer, female-specific cancers and, in fact, according to the study, “Vegetarian Diets and the Incidence of Cancer in a Low-risk Population,” published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, plant-based diets reduce the risk of all cancers.
The Plant-Weight Connection
High consumption of plant foods is associated with a reduced risk for hip fractures and Alzheimer’s, feeling calmer and happier, and remaining disease-free later in life.
A low-fat plant-based diet also results in longer telomeres, the bits of DNA associated with younger biological age and longer lives.
The human experience behind these statistics is compelling. Most of us have lost loved ones to diet-related preventable diseases. When I think about the fact that 17 percent of U.S. children are obese, or that rates of childhood diabetes are skyrocketing, or that hypertension is rising among children, I know there are real children behind the facts, real families experiencing major disruptions in their lives.
How Meat Harms Our Planet
In addition to health benefits, shifting our diet also benefits Earth, since animal agriculture is a major driver of our most dire environmental threats. In fact, according to the article “Livestock a Major Threat to the Environment,” published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock creates more greenhouse gas emissions than does vehicles.
One reason for this is that animal agriculture is very resource intensive. Animals grown for food and the plants to feed them occupy about 30 percent of the world’s total land surface!
Much of that land surface is pasture, but 33 percent of global land fit for growing crops is used to grow animal feed.
Feeding those crops to animals instead of people results in a significant loss of human food.
For example, if you used the 10.8 pounds of corn required to produce a pound of beef and made food for humans with it, you could make over 7.5 gallons of hominy or 235 tortillas.
Given that our global arable land is finite and our human population is growing, doesn’t it make sense to feed our grain directly to humans?
Water is another resource of great concern, with meat alone accounting for 30 percent of water used in the U.S.
Yet at the height of the recent drought in California, there was a significant outbreak in the press of stories about the water consumption of one of California’s plant crops: almonds. Most of the stories declared that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce one almond. Other plant crops were also mentioned in some of the articles, but the big focus was on almonds.
Interestingly, most of the articles failed to mention the real water guzzlers: animals being raised for food.
We could grow about 409 almonds with the 450 pounds of water it takes to grow the meat in a quarter pound hamburger. In fact, you would get almost four and a half cups—more than a quart—of almonds for the same water as that quarter pounder.
While many people would think nothing of downing one or two quarter-pound burgers in a single meal, I don’t think anyone could eat more than a quart of almonds in one sitting!
One good resource for more information on this topic is “The Water Footprint of Food,” published by Grace Communications Foundation.
Outputs of animal agriculture are also disturbing. Farmed animals in the U.S. produce about 130 times more waste than humans in our country do, about five tons of waste per year for each human.
Pollution from this waste makes its way into the land and water in the form of heavy metals, bacterial and viral pathogens, parasites, pharmaceuticals, detergents, disinfectants, excess nitrogen and other pollutants.
Perhaps the most alarming outputs, however, are the copious amounts of extremely potent greenhouse gases released by the production of meat, eggs and dairy for the plates of consumers.
Animal agriculture is the source of 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a larger share than all transportation combined.
Most of the greenhouse gases produced by animal agriculture are far more warming than carbon dioxide. The average passenger car releases 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
In comparison, one dairy cow releases 75.92 metric tons of methane per year.
That is already a lot more greenhouse gas than the average passenger car, but when you factor in the 72:1 warming potential of methane to carbon dioxide, that one cow’s methane emissions have contributed well over 1,000 times more warming than the car.
There is hopeful news, however, since the most copious greenhouse gases released by animal agriculture (methane, black carbon, nitrous oxide) leave the atmosphere much more quickly than does CO2.
While it is doubtful that any reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will be sufficient to turn around global warming in time, reducing these shorter-lived climate forcers can have a significant impact on climate change.
Reducing consumption of animal products, or going all the way to veganism, could result in significant reductions in an individual’s contribution to climate change and other environmental disasters, and can have tremendous positive impacts on our health.
Each of us has the capacity to make a significant difference with our food choices. I think that’s pretty empowering.
Excerpted by permission from Sensational Salads to Cool the Earth, by Beth Love, published by Wholeness Works Publishing, 2016.
Chef Beth Love has been preparing delicious whole foods for over 40 years, and loves to empower people to make dietary changes that improve their well-being and make a positive contribution to the world. One division of her business, Tastes Like Love, offers culinary classes and workshops, group programs, cookbooks, and other resources to support people in reclaiming their health and reducing their risk of disease through the adoption of a whole foods, plant-based diet.