Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Gloria de la Garza cheerfully arranges banana slices on top of the smooth purple surface of the açai smoothie bowl she’s preparing for her breakfast. “Sure, I can’t eat bacon and cheese, but I can eat fruit and rice, unlimited!” she says.
De la Garza, 26, has recently gotten serious about following a low-fat, high-carb vegan diet. She was encouraged to adopt the diet by her brother, a physician who recommended it to their entire family for cancer prevention—de la Garza’s father is a lymphoma survivor—but she says her primary reason for going vegan was weight loss.
Though De la Garza’s diet is stricter than most, she is one of many people now rethinking their relationship to meat and animal products. A 2018 Gallup poll found that nearly a quarter of respondents had cut down on meat in the past year; 70% of those people cited health reasons as a major factor in their decision. According to Olivier Jolliet, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, these people may be on the right track. Jolliet and his team of researchers developed a model to estimate the minutes of healthy life lost or gained per serving for nearly 7,000 foods based on their nutritional composition. By Jolliet’s metrics, exchanging 200 calories of beef—about as much as an average burger—for nuts and vegetables equals a life extension of roughly 50 minutes.
Red meat has been found to increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes—and cancer. A 2016 study by the World Health Organization found that 100 grams of red meat per day, again about the size of a burger, correlates with a 17% increase in colorectal cancer risk and is also associated with higher risks of prostate and pancreatic cancers. However, it’s worth noting that the average lifetime risk of colon cancer is 5% according to the American Cancer Society and a 17% increase only raises that figure to 6%.
George Quackenbush, the Executive Director of the Michigan Beef Industry Commission, believes that meat is being unfairly villainized. He argues that without meat “we’d have difficulty meeting our nutritional requirements without supplementation with things like B vitamins.” And he’s right: vitamin B12, which adults need about 3 micrograms of per day to stay healthy, isn’t naturally found in plant-based foods so vegans must rely on B12-fortified foods or supplements.
Even Jolliet doesn’t expect everyone to stop eating meat entirely. “What we cannot ask from the whole population is to change radically,” he says. After all, Jolliet says, “you cannot eat only nuts, because you’ll become nuts.” He advocates for encouraging people to make small, meaningful dietary changes that will add up in the long run.
For her part, De la Garza is satisfied so far with her decision to go vegan. “It’s easier than I thought,” she says. “A year ago, I was like ‘no, I’m not doing that, it’s going to be so hard,’ but it’s fine!”