Is The Standard American Diet Doing More Harm Than Good?

Jorgie Ingram

For many years, the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet has been a widely debated and controversial subject. Humans have been eating meat and animal products since the beginning of time, and only over the past few decades or so have many people begun to switch their largely omnivorous diet and lifestyle to cater to a more plant-based one. There are many studies that support both the negative and positive aspects of a largely plant-based diet, but do the pros outweigh the cons, or do the cons outweigh the pros? As the population increases, climate change is visibly influencing lives globally, and human health is being impacted…is the standard American diet truly sustainable at this point in time?

Some of the cheapest meals to purchase in America are those that you can purchase in the comfort of your own car. Fast food chains, corner stores, and gas stations offer highly processed meat and animal-product based meals for under $5, a bargain that would appeal to anyone looking to save some money, lives in a food desert, or who struggles to afford food. However, are these foods really cheaper than healthier alternatives? “Meat is the most expensive and inefficient food anyone can eat,” according to the Virtual School Global Studies Publication.

Although these foods may seem cheap, they are doing more harm to our economically efficient production of food that shown. “Cheap food in the U.S. comes with externalized costs, specifically the taxpayer money that goes towards supporting the working poor and subsidies for big agriculture,” a fact that is often looked over as many look at the food on their plate, and not necessarily what it takes to get there. If you look at other countries and other areas of the world, meat is a luxury food. Even wealthier countries like France, China, and Japan see a rotation of cheaper crops such as wheat, barley, rice, and beans as staples in their diet. It wasn’t until China started to see a rise in wealth that they incorporated more meat products into their diet, as meat is a much more expensive food to produce. This is because of subsidization, the benefit from the government given to the public or groups of people (usually by tax reduction or through cash), often in order to alleviate a burden – in this sense, making meat prices cheaper and spending $38 billion per year to do so, while “specialty crops,” such as fruits and vegetables (the foods that cost less to produce and grow), are not given any subsidy. Because of this subsidy, taxpayers are truly spending money towards the subsidization of these products, instead of the money spent towards the purchase of them in stores and restaurants.

The “USDA provides forms of direct support for producers of agricultural products, including meat and dairy products,” some of them are: the Livestock Compensation Program, the Emergency Livestock Feed Assistance, and the Livestock Emergency Assistance Program. The Federal Purchase Program is what products the government purchases to send to national food programs – including food banks and the National School Lunch Program – according to studies done by The Physicians Committee, “although the federal government has purchased a significant quantity of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in recent years, purchases remain skewed toward meat and dairy products”. This support allows the government to make money off of the most debilitating products to produce, infringing upon the true economically based equilibrium prices the inherent products have established. This could be seen as a good thing, as meat products are very prominent in our culture, but what are the costs? The subsidization of these products places more threat on the environment and human health, as they are consumed much more than we, as a human population, have consumed in the past. 

The expenses of meat products are not only taxing on the economy, but they are taxing on the environment.  The amount of land used for the production of these animal products, even just livestock, is astounding. When humans hunted and gathered, the effects that hunting livestock and other animals caused little impact on the environment compared to the taxing effects this production has; with the industrialized, fast-working production rates and methods. “The US lower 48 states represents 1.9 billion acres. Of that 1.9 billion acres: 778 million acres of private land are used for livestock grazing (forest grazing, pasture grazing, and crop grazing), 345 million acres for feed crops, 230 million acres of public land are used for grazing livestock”.

As the population is expected to rise, this will not be sustainable, especially as this exact use of land is responsible for the corruption of our natural resources: one feedlot is responsible for the amount of water pollution equal to a city of around 17 million people. Not only do large agricultural businesses impact the use of land, grass-fed and grazing cattle have an immense impact on our Earth as well: “Grazing has been a factor in the listing of 171 species under the Endangered Species Act. [92] It has damaged 80% of streams and riparian areas in the western United States. [93] 85% of US land used for grazing livestock is not suitable for farming. [27]”. The land usage, pollution, and carbon emissions impact the wellbeing of our planet, whether it’s direct or indirect. This is largely due to the massive land clearing on our planet for feed crops and space used to raise the animals, as well as “predators and “competition” species are frequently targeted and hunted because of a perceived threat to livestock profits. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers used in the production of feed crops often “interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poison waterways”.

The US lower 48 states represents 1.9 billion acres. Of that 1.9 billion acres: 778 million acres of private land are used for livestock grazing (forest grazing, pasture grazing, and crop grazing), 345 million acres for feed crops, 230 million acres of public land are used for grazing livestock.

Many may not be concerned by the massive land usage and relative effects, but that doesn’t constitute the dangerous level of methane and CO2 emissions that animal agriculture industries are largely responsible for. Globally, the cow and bull population is about 1.5 million, mostly bred for the sole purpose of consumption and use for food products. These cows and bulls produce methane, a greenhouse gas responsible for the warming of our atmosphere, trapping the heat and warm temperatures. “Methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame” – in which, “even without fossil fuels, we will exceed our 565 gigatonnes CO2e limit by 2030, all from raising animals”. Although there are arguments that support the consumption of meat in regards to the comparison of the land usage from crops like soybeans, grain, and corn, the end results in a larger scale problem due to the way we produce the animal products. About 70-80% of grain and corn is grown to feed livestock. Soybeans and things like almonds and palm oil, however, are extremely detrimental to the planet in the ways that they’re produced as well, but must be monitored and chosen wisely, just as any other product. The vegetarian diet, however, does not need said crops to thrive.

Another taxing effect of a meat-based diet is that on human health. Although we, as humans, have been eating meat since the beginning of time, the change in industrialization, our consumption of said products, and the increased consumption of these products have paid a toll on our health as a civilization. Although there are arguments that support an omnivorous diet that includes meat products due to “more iron, more omega-3 fatty acids, more calcium, and the fact that lean meat can be incorporated into a balanced, healthful diet,” vegetarian diets can be just as nourishing and actually reverse and prevent diseases that may be onset by too much cholesterol, hormones, toxins, and unhealthy fats that animal protein may push the human body to succumb to. Vegetarian diets mostly focused on the consumption of whole, plant based foods, are naturally high in fiber, vitamins, nutrients, and cancer-protective phytochemicals as well as low in saturated fat, and cholesterol, can actually work to prevent disease in the body.

Studies have shown that vegetarians have a  40% lower risk to develop cancer than meat eaters, incorporating “Harvard studies that included tens of thousands of women and men have shown that regular meat consumption increases colon cancer risk by roughly 300 percent.8,9 High-fat diets also encourage the body’s production of estrogens, in particular, estradiol”. Heart disease, high cholesterol, type two diabetes, and coronary artery disease are some of the most common and treated diseases in the U.S, shown to be caused by high cholesterol, diets high in saturated fat, and diets high in animal products. Reason for this is partly because “Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet,” according to the American Dietetic Association.

There are many negative associations involved with a mostly plant-based diet, but there are also many studies supporting the sustainability and efficiency involved in a plant based diet. With the population steadily increasing, the temperature rising, and the large amount of Americans under the knife for diseases that are inherently preventable, an interest in plant based diets are rising as well. As more of a lifestyle than a diet, vegetarianism and plant-based eating reap many benefits, helping to lessen the burden our ecological footprint positions on the planet. By fighting disease, environmental impact, and harmful economic subsidization, vegetarian diets prove to be more sustainable in the long run. Don’t just stop here – do your own research: how will you use thought when purchasing your food?