The Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet & Animal Welfare Reshma Shah, MD, MPH
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Previously, we talked about the health benefits of following a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet. In addition to optimizing health, this way of eating also cares for our planet and goes a long way towards ending animal suffering. Animal agriculture exacts a huge toll on our environment. It is responsible for up to 51% of all greenhouse gasses; it is the leading cause of rainforest destruction, species extinction, ocean dead zones and water pollution. In fact, livestock produces more greenhouse gasses than all the world’s vehicles combined. Animal agriculture is responsible for more than 90% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Thirty percent of all water consumed is used for animal agriculture, which also uses up 45% of the earth’s ice-free land mass. Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, a person eating the standard American diet would require roughly two football fields of land mass to produce a year’s worth of food, whereas those same two football fields could feed 14 people who were following a plant-based diet. Additionally, 50% of the world’s grains are used to feed livestock, while close to one billion people go hungry every day. A diet focused on animal foods has an enormous impact on our environment and is an inefficient use of our resources.
This brings me to the final benefit of following a plant-based diet – animal welfare. A poll conducted by the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) found that more than 94% of Americans agreed that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be raised free from abuse and cruelty. But, the reality is that the majority of the nearly 10 billion farm animals raised in the US each year suffer in disturbing and unthinkable ways. More than 99% of farm animals in the US come from factory farms, which are also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These animals are stuffed in cages and suffer from overcrowding. They are unable to roam or sit, are deprived of sunlight, plagued with poor air quality and they aren't able to establish their natural sense of hierarchy and social order. The animals undergo painful mutilations and are bred to grow unnaturally large and fast to maximize meat, egg and milk production. Their bodies cannot support this rate of growth, and the animals suffer in painful and debilitating ways. Eighty percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used for livestock. Hormone use is also rampant to produce faster maturation. This not only causes harm to the animals, but the drugs reach us in our food supply, leading to increasing strains of drug-resistant organisms. In addition, the hormones potentially increase the risk of certain cancers, such as breast and prostate, as well as influence the progression of puberty. While organic, cage-free and grass-fed labels seem more humane by claiming to provide the animals with natural pasture to graze upon, the reality is that these labels can be misleading. A great amount of suffering may still be endured by the animals in these environments. Even if we could, in fact, ensure that animals were raised humanely—allowed to roam and live without suffering—the simple truth is that we do not have grasslands vast enough to raise animals in this way such that it would meet the current demand for meat. In the final post, I will share with you how easy it is to implement a whole-foods plant-based diet.
Environmental Protection Agency: Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, 2004.
Environmental Working Group: Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health. static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf
Pimentel, D. and Pimentel M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78(suppl):660S–3S. ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full.pdf+html
Reshma Shah, MD, MPH
Dr. Reshma Shah is a board-certified pediatric physician. She obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and her medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. She has more than a decade of experience in primary care pediatrics and has served as an assistant clinical professor at a Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, a leading children's hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. She currently cares for patients at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and is an affiliate clinical instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine.
In addition to clinical practice, Reshma has a strong interest in family health and wellness, with a focus on plant-based nutrition. She completed a certification program in Plant-Based Nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and eCornell as well as a Professional Plant-Based Nutrition Cooking certification through Rouxbe Cooking School. In her spare time, Reshma enjoys yoga, traveling with her family, and of course, cooking!
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