07/04/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Go Meat-Free This World Health Day

GEORGES GOBET via Getty Images
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY CLARISSE LUCAS Cows graze in Florian Couillaud's organic dairy farm near Nantes, in Brittany, on March 23, 2015. Brittany, France's largest milk producing region , hopes to boost its production by 20% over the next 5 years by focusing more on exports as milk quotas come to an end on the European market. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE GOBET AFP/AFP/GEORGES GOBET/STF /GG (Photo credit should read GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

Two people have approached the Bombay High Court challenging the new ban on beef in Maharashtra and stating, among other things, that it is taking away a source of nutrition. As a nutritionist, I know people need beef like people need cigarettes. In other words, they don't. In fact, they are far better off without it.

A study by the Cleveland Clinic in the United States revealed consuming beef, bacon and lamb leads to the hardening and narrowing of the arteries. Bowel cancer is also more common amongst people who eat considerable amounts of red and processed meat.

But it's not just red meat that's the problem. Contrary to popular belief, chicken and fish are not health foods, either. Chicken contains as much cholesterol as beef--25 mg per ounce--and Dr Neal Barnard, founder of the Washington, DC-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), compares fish to a "low-tar cigarette". Cholesterol content in fish varies, but as PCRM points out, "None [is] even close to being cholesterol-free and some are extremely high - shellfish like shrimp, lobster and crayfish, for example. Ounce for ounce, shrimp have about double the cholesterol of beef". PCRM further explains, "[N]umerous studies have shown ... that the more cholesterol you ingest, the higher your risk of artery blockages, regardless of blood cholesterol level. Less cholesterol on the plate means less risk for heart problems--as much as 50 per cent less--whether or not it lowers blood cholesterol levels". Plant foods, on the other hand, do not contain cholesterol since plants do not have a liver to produce it with.

Eating saturated fat is especially harmful because it causes the body to produce more cholesterol. Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, a public-health specialist with PCRM, explains fish are surprisingly high in saturated fat (i.e. 'bad' fat), which accounts for 15 to 30 per cent of fish fat. She says, "Ounce for ounce, shrimp and lobster are much higher in cholesterol than steak".

Researcher Valter Longo, professor of biology at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the USC Longevity Institute says the risks of a high-protein diet are even comparable to smoking. The study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that people aged 50 to 65 who ate a diet rich in animal protein during middle age were more than four times as likely to die of cancer during the study period as those who ate a low-protein diet, which is similar to the likelihood of dying from cancer in people who smoke versus people who don't smoke.

Conversely, a study of 44,500 people in England and Scotland published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed vegetarians were 32 per cent less likely to die or need hospitalisation as a result of heart disease. Their lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure and bodyweight were thought to be the factors that provided the boost in health.

Research into the dietary habits of more than 70,000 people, recently published online in JAMA Internal Medicine by Loma Linda University, showed those who ate a vegetarian diet had a 22 per cent lower risk of colorectal cancer than those who were not vegetarian.

Eating a plant-based diet also wards off obesity. A study from Loma Linda University found average body mass index (BMI) was lowest among vegans (vegetarians who refrain from consuming dairy and other animal products), while average BMI was highest among meat-eaters. Specifically, researchers found that only 9.4 per cent of the vegans studied were obese, compared with 33.3 per cent of the people who ate meat and 16.7 per cent of the lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Going meat-free is also good for the conscience. Every year, billions of animals are violently killed for their flesh. Horrific practices such as cutting off part of newborn chicks' beaks to prevent pecking and injecting animals with drugs to make them grow unnaturally large cause immense suffering. In most Indian slaughterhouses, workers hack away at conscious animals' throats with a dull blade - as their companions watch nearby, in terror.

Rejecting meat also helps the planet. A widely publicised 2009 report published by the Worldwatch Institute estimated that a whopping 51 per cent of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions may be attributable to animal agriculture.

This World Health Day (7th April)--and beyond--if you want to improve your health, enjoy plant-based food powered by all the vitamins and protein you need to be at your best, and be kind to animals and the Earth. It's easy. Just go meat-free.

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