There’s no denying that plant foods are vital for maintaining optimal health and performance. 

A large body of evidence shows that people who eat higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are generally healthier and more likely to live longer, disease-free lives than those who don’t eat enough of them.

Naturally, there are crackpot contrarians who claim plant foods (especially carbs) are actually causing weight gain, “leaky gut,” global warming, inflation, and racism, but these folks are (thankfully) spurned by many.

Some plant-based proponents swing to the other extreme, though, and posit that vegan and vegetarian diets are clearly superior to omnivorous ones. Is this really true, though? Is giving up meat or animal products really necessary to optimize your health, or is it enough to simply make sure you eat plenty of plant foods? 

Keep reading to learn the answer.

The Pros of Plant-Based Dieting

Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they also contain other types of phytonutrients that benefit health in various ways. 

Two good examples of this are sulforaphane and anthocyanins, phytonutrients found mainly in broccoli and blueberries and known to reduce cancer risk, cellular wear-and-tear, and cholesterol levels, but are not found on food labels, which list only vital-to-life nutrients. Many of these additional nutrients aren’t in multivitamins or other supplements, either, so pills and powders can’t replace the real McCoy.

Fiber is another (often overlooked) component of plant foods that deserves attention. Fiber is an indigestible type of carbohydrate found in many types of foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains. 

Its importance has been known for a long time—the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who famously said “let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” recommended whole-grain breads to improve bowel movements—and modern scientific research has confirmed that eating enough fiber increases your chances of living a long and healthy life.

The Problem with Plant-Only Dieting

While healthy eating necessarily includes a wide variety of plants and vegetables, ranging from dark, leafy greens to garlic to cruciferous vegetables to cereal grains and more, that doesn’t mean eating only those foods is ideal, and especially if you’re trying to improve your body composition.

For instance, gaining muscle is trickier as a vegan or vegetarian because it’s difficult to eat enough high-quality, well-absorbed protein. This partly explains why studies have shown omnivores tend to have more muscle than vegetarians and vegans. 

You can work around this issue by carefully choosing certain plant foods that are rich in suitable protein (like peas, beans, and nuts), but even then, you’ll likely have to eat quite a lot of these foods or include supplements in your regimen to meet your daily protein needs.

Studies show that certain micronutrient deficiencies are more common among vegans than omnivores, too, including vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, calcium, and others. You can mitigate this problem by consuming a variety of different micronutrient-dense foods, but to fill in all of the gaps, you’ll also need to supplement strategically.

There’s another (and arguably better) way to get enough premium protein and key nutrients, though: Simply include animal foods in your diet, and specifically red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs. 

Some call this a “flexitarian diet.” I just call it a “healthy” diet. 

That’s controversial advice nowadays, though. Take red meat, for instance, which many plant-based apostles liken to cigarettes. Just a serving or two of red meat per day, they say, is enough to markedly impair your health and wellness. 

A cursory review of the scientific evidence doesn’t offer much insight. Some studies seem to show that red meat is indeed bad for you, others suggest it’s benign, and others indicate it’s actually good for you. 

Unriddling the matter would require a book unto itself, but the long and short is twofold:

  1. The argument against eating red meat relies on evidence that shows an association between red meat (particularly processed red meat) and cancer and heart disease. It’s worth noting, though, that much of this research is based on relatively low-quality studies involving sedentary, often overweight people following a standard Western diet awash with highly processed foods. Thus, it’s hard to say how eating red meat or even processed red meats would affect active, lean, healthy people who are also eating lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. The highest quality research available on red meat eating shows that it isn’t unhealthy and that reducing red meat consumption has no significant benefit. Moreover, meat also provides a good source of protein and nutrients difficult to get with vegetarian and vegan diets, like iron, zinc, and creatine. 

Dairy and eggs are two more animal foods often wrongfully attacked as unhealthy. Despite claims to the contrary, studies show that milk doesn’t cause weight gain or cancer, doesn’t degenerate your bones, and doesn’t contain unhealthy amounts of hormones, pus, or blood. Research also shows that eggs don’t raise cholesterol levels or increase the risk of heart disease.

So, while you can get and stay fit, lean, strong, and healthy on a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s easier to mess up than with a well-designed omnivorous one.

Following a vegan or vegetarian diet for religious or ethical reasons is a different matter, but it’s hard to make a case that shunning meat or animal products is the healthiest way to eat.

A better choice is a plant-centric diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains as well as a variety of nutritious (and protein-rich) animal products including beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy.

+ Scientific References

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