The Two Big Reasons Why I Became a Vegetarian: Climate and Health
In order to explain “why vegetarian? ”, I will begin by sharing my concerns on climate change and soon after, I will explain what all of this has to do with health. Please bear with me.
I have always been a strong advocate against global warming and climate change. We all know the predictions are grim and some have heard the same stories over and over again. Al Gore has been lecturing about the same “Inconvenient Truth” since 2006 and yet progress seems nonexistent. Glaciers are melting at alarming rates and one glacier alone could induce a half a meter increase in sea levels (link: theguardian.com/environment). This is a frightening thought (at least for me), especially when we consider all the countries that remain vulnerable to these changes. One big source of attention and a notorious example on the risks of global warming, include the Maldives (link: uk.businessinsider.com/islands). The islands of the Maldives are on average only 1.3 meters above sea level making a whole country uninhabitable if changes are not made soon. Natural ecosystems such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef remain under threatening conditions and our worries just keep on piling up.
“95% of reefs from Cairns to Papua New Guinea are now severely bleached. Experts say it is too early to tell whether the corals will recover, but scientists “in the water” are already reporting up to 50% mortality of bleached corals.” (link: bbc.co.uk/news)
In other words, things are not going so great. Even though we have made some improvements (link: ft.com), we have a lot of things that need to be addressed in our collective “To Do” list.
As a PhD student at Cass Business School, I research everything that has to do with finance and sustainability (and more). Someday, I hope to show the overwhelming financial benefits of social investments (please note, this has already been shown in various ways, but much work needs to be done). Through the course of my research, I encounter various articles, papers, information and I do my best to embed everything that I can find. There are many good reasons to reduce ones intake of meat, but the two biggest reasons for me are (1) Climate and (2) Health.
So what does meat have to do with the Climate? The first reason for lowering the intake of meat (for me) was the large effect it has on our carbon foot print. The effects are larger than I ever imagined (link: theguardian.com/environment). Some even claim that eating less meat would cut carbon emissions more than the reduced use of a car. Since I do not have a car, this seemed like the next best thing to consider for lowering my personal carbon foot print.
“Beef’s environmental impact dwarfs that of other meat including chicken and pork, new research reveals, with one expert saying that eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars. The heavy impact on the environment of meat production was known but the research shows a new scale and scope of damage, particularly for beef. The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases…Agriculture is a significant driver of global warming and causes 15% of all emissions, half of which are from livestock.”
While we may debate the “which pollutes more” topic, much remains clear; the carbon foot print of eating meat is huge. For me, this was the first alarm and a major source of attention. Before this, I had no idea of the sheer scale of the problem and the consequences of my diet on global health. However, was this a good enough reason to stop eating meat? I always thought food and agriculture was the last thing we should or could consider when tackling climate change.
After finally realizing the effects of meat on the environment, my next question was; how much less should I or could I consume? As someone who trains for full distance triathlons, I need to make sure my body receives enough nutrition to keep up with the training. My training is not overwhelming at all. On average, I train 40 minutes per day with one long 2-3 hour session during the weekend. This is not “that” much, but none the less, I need to make sure I simply eat enough. Therefore, the natural first reaction for me was; “I need protein and I get that from meat ”. As time went by, I began to realize the flaws of this argument. My first inspiration came from a fantastic documentary recommended to me by my brother, Forks Over Knives (2011) (link: imdb.com/title/tt1567233). The documentary revolves around two researchers and their balanced approach to understanding the health effects of meat in our diets. Other organizations such as WHO (World Health Organization – The International Organization whose sole job is to find out how to make people healthier) have started providing statements about the negative effects of red meat and processed meat (link: iarc.fr & link: nytimes.com/2015) and slowly but steadily, I found more and more articles denying the traditional claimed benefits of meat. Even the Dutch government has begun re-evaluating meat requirements in schools and apparently advocating for citizens to consume no more than 500 grams of meat per week (link: thinkprogress.org/climate). 10 years ago this would have been a ridiculous proposal, but now, the consensus is broadening. To me, it seemed, less meat was a beneficial thing to do (at least on average). Take all of this with a grain of salt. No policy recommendation is perfect, however, on a global scale and on an average basis, eating less is surely more.
But was this enough for me? The last question I had was, will this affect my athletic performance? Do I really need animal based protein to keep doing the things I do? The answer soon became clear, no. The extremes of this argument have been tackled in numerous occasions. For example, vegan Iron Man athletes have existed for a long time (link: ironman.com/triathlon-news) and even vegan bodybuilders are no new phenomenon to the world of sports (link: metro.co.uk/2015). Especially hearing so many stories on vegan body builders, it took away the last argument that “I absolutely needed animal based proteins to recover from exercise”. If others can go to zero consumption, surely I could lower mine. Soon, I calculated the most conservative (or highest) value of daily protein intake required for my level of exercise and I found out my near vegetarian diet was already providing far beyond what I needed. I even found the same would hold if I would continue with a vegan diet (link: vrg.org/nutrition). With all this information now at hand, I started taking small steps towards a meat less diet.
On March 19th, I ran a 54km trail Ultra Marathon in Sussex. The run took a bit over six hours and I felt better than ever before (obviously my legs were burning and I cursed every hill I saw, but the run went great none the less). I have cut meat out of my home cooked meals since August 2015 (so around 6 months). I feel great, I feel stronger and I am more awake at work than ever before. You may think this might be due to better training routines, sleep routines, etc. That surely may be the case, however, a near vegetarian diet has had no negative effects on my well-being. That I can say for sure. Now, to be clear, I am a vegetarian within my own diet. I still eat meat whenever I meet the family, share dinners at a restaurant, etc. I am not strict at all. It would be more appropriate to call me a reductionist, which is perfectly fine as well. I apologize to those who thought my use of terminology was misleading, that was not my intention. Overall, this diet is the most comfortable solution for me at the moment, and who knows, it still might change. To be honest, the initial steps towards a vegetarian diet were fairly accidental. I moved to London last September and meat is extremely expensive in the UK (at least relatively speaking). Initially I simply ate less meat in order to keep a lower budget. This was not difficult at first, my girlfriend is a vegetarian and having a few vegetarian meals here and there was not a big issue for me. As a result, the first big step towards a lower meat intake was fairly accidental and the availability of vegetarian meals in London made things very easy for me to continue. Overall, I am not advocating for anything specific, I am still collecting all the facts and information I can find. Running an Ultra Marathon was just a small step to show myself that a meat less diet had no negative effects on my athletic performance. The old saying that I needed animal based proteins to do the sports I love, was gone for me. There is no one single solution to do things. Eating less meat is more likely to be healthier for you, but you are the one who decides. I certainly know I used to eat too much meat. Sometimes, I would eat over 400 grams of meat per day and that certainly was no healthy decision on my part. I acted on the information I had available and I thought I was doing the right and healthy thing. It is up to you to decide what the healthy and responsible mix is for you. No one says the zero meat tolerance is the best and only solution, but reducing clearly has its benefits.
If anyone has any articles they wish to share regarding pro-meat, anti-meat or anything else at all, please do! I welcome any comments, thoughts and criticism as well!
P.S. If anyone is interested in my points on sugar. Please read here.