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The Bottom of the Food Pyramid

Making vegetables the star of our dish

How many of us reading this right now admit that they enjoy meats more than any vegetable or fruit? I bet there’s plenty of you “carnivores” out there. There’s a good reason for it — they are just so darn delicious and nutritious. One meal of a quarter of a baked chicken with mash potatoes provides plenty of the nutrients to fill your daily RDI quota and has the proper amount of calories as part of a 3-meal diet. A 3 oz. (85 grams) serving of steak provides you with 40% of your daily protein requirement, 11% iron, over 20% of vitamin B6, and a whopping 208% of the daily intake of vitamin B12! There are those who — by preference — live with a diet totally devoid of any plants (except for herbs and spices). But as heavenly as that sounds to some of us it isn’t the best lifestyle choice. The expense is beside the point, the health and environmental implications should seriously be considered

The human digestive system has evolved to be able to accept a wide range of food sources to fulfill our bodies’ nutritional needs. We are quite efficient in extracting nutrients from both animal and plant-based foods. We can survive with just one or the other, and that is a useful aspect to our survival as a species. We are inherently not picky eaters, we can survive on just about anything that we can sink our teeth into. But to thrive humans need to have a variation of both. Some scientists speculate that our omnivorous diet is how we have developed into the humans that we are today.

But humans are a curious thing. As we developed to become more complex thinkers and our civilization continues to thrive and create more relaxed and secure environments, our diets are increasingly bent towards fulfilling our desires rather than driven by an acute sense of survival. For example we would rather spend the extra time and energy looking for a specific taste that would satisfy a craving, rather than settle for anything available. Logically that would be detrimental to survival. Only in absolute desperation do we suppress that desire and settle for whatever the environment provides.

This behaviour leads many to develop a poor dietary lifestyle. Although humans can survive comfortably with a limited nutritional variation, people on a balanced and greater dietary variation are considerably healthier and have a lower mortality rate especially on a plant-heavy diet. Japan has the highest amount of centenarians (people over 100 years of age) per capita and the highest average life expectancy than any other country in the world. Their good diet is a large contributor to this feat in mortality. They eat in moderation and with a good mix of proteins and vegetables, but this mix is typically skewed towards having more plant-based food items such as pickled vegetables, stir-fried vegetables, and tofu.

This is not to say that animal-based foods are bad. In fact they too are just as essential. There are plenty of vitamins and minerals that we can never get from a plant-based diet. If you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet you may be missing out on these essential vitamins and minerals:

  1. Vitamin B12 is primarily sourced from animals as a byproduct of certain bacteria which resides in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Humans also produce vitamin B12 in their bodies, however this occurs in the colon where no nutrition is absorbed. Ruminant animals such as cow, sheep, and deer are a good source of B12. Their digestive system allows them to absorb B12 in their foreguts (remember, they have four stomachs). Animals store B12 in liver and muscles, and they can even pass it into their eggs and milk.
  2. Creatine is primarily sourced from animal muscles. They function as energy storage for muscles and provide enhanced brain function.
  3. Vitamin D3 is responsible for our skin’s ability to produce the vitamin D that we get from sun exposure and enhance our blood’s vitamin D absorption.
  4. Omega 3 is found mainly in fatty fish and is essential for brain function.
  5. Heme iron is a type of iron that is found in animal muscles and is more easily absorbed by our blood. It is essential for the formation of haemoglobin (the oxygen carrier). Although plants such as spinach are rich in iron, they are of the non-heme type and those are not as easily absorbed.


But just as well, there are nutrients that an animal-based diet can never provide. This list is simplified by clumping some of the nutrients together :

  1. Vitamin C is essential for our immune system and the health of our blood vessels. It is a highly fragile vitamin. Cooking of animal tissue at any degree completely destroys this vitamin. As such no cooked meats have any useful amounts of Vitamin C. You can get sufficient amount of vitamin C in raw eggs and liver, but hardly anyone would take up that diet on a daily basis.
  2. Flavonoids of different types can be found in all plant-based foods. They have a multitude of functions depending on their type, ranging from blood vessel flexibility to elimination of free radicals (antioxidants).
  3. Dietary fiber is inedible, but studies have shown that they are functional in keeping a healthy digestive tract, promoting growth of good bacteria, and lowers rick of colon cancer. There are also different types of dietary fibers and all have their own function and health benefits. They also help to increase the feeling of fullness, thus helping us to moderate our food intake.

Although we are built for the consumption of both, the health implications of excessive animal-based food consumption indicates that we should bias our food intake for fruits and vegetables. Animal-based products should be treated as a supplementary element. They not only close the gaps in nutritional needs, but also add an interesting savoury element to our dish. A modest intake of animal protein also puts less strain on our agricultural industry. Animal farming is a strenuous industry that is inefficient, resource consuming, and have a negative environmental impact when done on a massive scale. Reducing our animal-based food intake will improve both our health and the environment.