The Meat of the Matter

What You’re Getting When You Choose a Plant- vs. Meat-based Diet

Summer is here and South Africans all over are getting ready to unite with a delicious braai. Sitting around the fire to cook a piece of meat is one thing that most South Africans love to do – so much so that Heritage Day is now more popularly known as National Braai Day.

However, it seems that vegans are turning up the heat as the popularity of plant-based diets increases. According to the Economist, 75% of South Africans who lead a healthy lifestyle are now leaving meat off their plates at least once a week.

Major retailers and restaurateurs are also spending more in the veggie aisles as increasingly consumers are calling for a better vegan offering. But whether you believe beef is best or you’re on team leafy green, the question on everybody’s lips these days is “What’s better for your health?”.

More Than Just Protein

While the current trend is all about going vegan, the idea that “nobody needs animal foods” has been brought into question by many dieticians around the world.  Meat eaters don’t help their case by insisting that meat is a source of protein, especially since protein is actually one of the easier nutrients to obtain on a vegan diet.

However, there are some essential micronutrients that are only available in meat products, such as Vitamin B12 (found in meat, milk or eggs) and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA – a transfat that actually aids in weight loss). Meat also aids in the absorption of Omega 3 fats, pre-formed Vitamin A, Vitamin K and heme iron. 

The Fibre Factor

While meat products contain essential micronutrients, they contain almost none of the dietary fibre found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Fibre is probably best known for its ability to prevent or relieve constipation; however, it has other health benefits that are often overlooked, e.g. it lowers cholesterol levels, helps control blood sugar levels and aids in maintaining a healthy weight.

In addition, new research suggests that vegans have the most diverse microbiome — a collection of bacteria in your gut that breaks down foods and helps you absorb vitamins and minerals. If your microbiome is healthy, you take in more nutrients; a healthy microbiome also protects you from viruses or disease-causing bacteria. 

Environmental Consciousness

The greatest argument for a vegan diet is that it’s more planet-friendly: If we feed plants to animals, and then eat the animals, we use more resources and produce more greenhouse gases than if we simply eat the plants.

However, it may not be as clear cut as that. Comparing cows with pigs, and meat with plants, is often done using data from the Environmental Working Group. The report includes a chart that ranks various foods according to the amount of emissions generated in the course of production.

But there’s another way to look at the same information. If you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories. You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli. In this case the amount of energy it takes to produce the broccoli far outweighs the energy used to produce the chicken.

Best Meal You’ll Ever Eat

It turns out that the answer is balance; from vegans and pescatarians to full-on carnivores, the number of vitamins and minerals one needs is inextricably linked to countless factors such as one’s overall diet, lifestyle, gender and age. Everybody can live a healthy lifestyle by following a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.

Personal preferences, religious or other beliefs, and health issues are among the most common reasons for choosing to be a vegan. Many people choose a vegetarian diet out of concern over animal rights or the environment, or a combination of both.

If you decide to follow a specialised vegan or vegetarian diet, we recommend speaking to a dietician for advice on how to substitute any loss in vitamins and minerals.

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