What To Eat For Your Own Health & The Planet's, From Mark Hyman, MD
What is the best diet for humans, our society, and the planet? What we eat is important not only to us but also to almost everything that matters. It would seem we should have a simple answer to this question, but there is vast disagreement from a variety of experts.
Sadly, the public is at the mercy of these constantly changing debates.
Eggs were bad, then they were good, and now they are bad again. Fat was bad, now it's good, but controversy exists about whether to cut saturated fat or increase refined plant-based oils. Some science shows that meat is bad and increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and death; other science reports that meat is benign, even healthy and necessary for optimal nutrition.
On the one side is the regenerative agriculture movement, which suggests that animals are part of the natural biological cycle necessary to create sustainable ecosystems, that animals must be integrated into farms to regenerate soil, enabling it to store massive amounts of carbon and water. These practices can reduce the need for factory-farmed meat and its overuse of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, and farming practices that deplete the soil and can be done at scale more profitably than feedlots. With 40% of agricultural lands suited only for grazing, this seems like a good idea. Even if you wanted to grow vegetables or grains on them, you can't.
According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, a vegetarian regenerative rancher, the problem is not the cow but the how. Feedlot beef, hogs, and chickens—or regenerative farms that include animals as an essential part of ecosystem restoration?
Others suggest that eating meat will destroy our health and that cattle are the equivalent of the atomic bomb in terms of the destructive capacity for the climate and inhumane treatment of animals. That a meatless diet is the only way to save our health and the planet. That animal products should not be part of a healthy diet. That vegan and vegetarian diets prevent disease and prolong life.
Compared to our standard processed diet, plant-based diets are better. This does not automatically mean that diets of whole foods including sustainable, regeneratively raised animal foods are bad. Data on both vegetarian and meat-based diets are primarily studies of large populations. Some studies show no difference between omnivorous diets and vegetarian or vegan diets. Some show that vegetarian diets are healthier. Some show that diets with animal protein and fat are healthier than diets high in cereal grains. No wonder people (including doctors and even many scientists) are confused.
However, the totality of the scientific evidence makes it very clear that a whole foods, unprocessed diet is better for you and the planet. With one caveat: Factory farming of animals is bad for you, for them, and for the planet. Regeneratively raised animals can not only prevent the environmental and climate harm of factory-farmed animals but actually restore ecosystems and reverse climate change.
These simple arguments often ignore the complexity and nuances beyond the sound bites.
The types of studies we need haven't been done. We have to rely on basic science, smaller clinical trials, and the totality of all the data. A large, long-term randomized controlled study of a whole-foods-based regenerative diet that includes animals or one that is vegan has not been done and is very difficult to do. It would take decades, billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of study participants who strictly follow a specified eating protocol. Can you see why this hasn't and can't be done? Just to study a few hundred people over a few months while strictly controlling their diets can cost tens of millions of dollars and still may not be able to predict long-term outcomes.
Yes, factory-farmed meat is bad for us and the planet. No one is for it (except Big Ag). Regenerative grass-fed meat can restore ecosystems, improving soils while sucking carbon from the atmosphere and increasing water storage in soils. It also increases biodiversity of the soil, which is critical for human survival and can be employed on lands unsuitable for other agriculture.
The simple "plants are good, meat is bad" argument is nuanced.
What plants? What meat? Industrial soy, no. Vegetables from a regenerative farm, yes. Factory-farmed steak, no. Regeneratively raised steak, yes.
A recent independent life-cycle analysis by the sustainability experts at Quantis of regeneratively raised beef versus GMO soy burger (Impossible Burger) showed that you would have to eat one regeneratively raised beef burger to offset the net carbon emissions of one Impossible Burger. The soy burger is far better than feedlot beef, but it adds 3.5 kilograms of CO2 to the environment, while the regeneratively raised beef burger removes 3.5 kilograms of CO2. Soy is the main staple of "healthy vegan" meat replacements and plant-based burgers. So, your soy burger or pea protein shake may not be so good for you or the planet after all. Since the soy from the Impossible Burger is made with GMO soy most likely sprayed with Roundup or glyphosate, it may have as much as 10 parts per billion (ppb) more glyphosate than those made from pea protein. Research shows that just 0.1 ppb of glyphosate is enough to harm your gut bacteria or microbiome1. Just one Impossible Burger may have 110 times that much!
So, what's an eater to do?
The key here is to try to adhere to simple principles based on the best available data we have today, combined with a spoonful of common sense that will help prevent and reverse chronic disease, restore ecosystems, reverse climate change, and dramatically reduce the true cost of food. Easy as plant-based pie.
Dr. Mark Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of Functional Medicine. He is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a 13-time New York Times best-selling author, and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine. He is the host of one of the leading health podcasts, The Doctor’s Farmacy. Dr. Hyman is a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including CBS This Morning, Today, Good Morning America, The View, and CNN. He is also an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show.