The Diet Debate: Is Plant Based Better

The documentary, “The Game Changers,” turned the diet world upside down after its September 2019 Netflix release. You couldn’t walk into a gym without hearing everyone from the Zumba queens, to the weight-room meatheads (meatheads… kind of ironic….) discussing how they are now becoming “plant-based,’ because of the information provided in the controversial Netflix documentary. I won’t spend time reviewing the documentary, however many people decided to change their diet views after watching high-level athletes discuss why they have become entirely plant-based eaters. The documentary presents an argument that athletic performance is enhanced from an entirely plant-based diet, through testimonials of Olympic, professional, and college plant-based athletes. But, is it true that you need to swear off meat, and live a life of eating only foods that were grown from the ground to live your healthiest life?

Plants are Better

In a 2014 study, Belgium researchers found that out of 1,500 participants, fully plant-based eaters scored highest on the Healthy Eating Index. This is an index that is based on a measure of dietary quality. Meat-eaters were more likely to be overweight or obese and scored lowest on the Healthy Eating Index. (1) Based on this study, and “The Game Changers” documentary it is pretty obvious that meat is bad, and plants are good, right? Not quite. In fact, the answer is much more complicated than that (as per usual).

Is Meat Bad?

There are inherently no “bad” foods out there unless of course, you have an allergy to a specific food which causes you health problems. However, consuming meat in moderation does not, in itself, raise your risk of becoming overweight or obese. Your overall dietary profile matters a lot more for your health than any particular food group does. If you eat a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, protein (both animal and plant-based), whole grains, beans/legumes, and nuts/seeds/avocados/healthy fats; it likely doesn’t matter at all if you decide to eat meat or not. In fact, about 90% of people in the United States don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 10% of people eat 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit, and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day (2). Oh, and you guessed it, it’s the vegans and vegetarians that mostly make up the 10% who do consume enough fruits and vegetables per day.

Plant-Based VS Omnivores

So if plant only based eaters score significantly higher on the Healthy Eating Index, it’s easy to conclude that everyone should give up meat, right? Well, not exactly. The main reason why plant-based eaters rank higher on the Healthy Eating Index is sole that they eat less processed foods than meat-eaters do. When someone is plant-based only, they eat more whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, etc. Being plant-based also takes a lot of extra work as well in regards to preparation. Label and menu reading is a part of everyday life for plant only eaters, which leads to better and healthier food choices.

The solution?

No, it’s not to stop eating meat- unless it’s a lifestyle choice that you choose to make for moral reasons. Eating meat does not make you any less healthy, but having a diet high in processed foods will make you less healthy. If you are like 90% of the population that has less than 1-2 cups of fruit, and 2-3 cups of vegetables, start by adding in more whole foods to your diet. Regardless if you eat a lot of meat or no meat, the most important factor is to stick to nutritious whole foods.