For many people, “conventional wisdom” now includes the notion that a pure vegetarian diet, while perhaps not more appetizing, is certainly more healthful, more nutritious and ultimately, more responsible than one that includes animal foods.
But I wasn’t quite prepared for a question on an “Ask an Expert” post that discussed issues related to diet and health — and neither was the expert, Jennifer Barnes, an assistant professor at Illinois State University’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.
The inquiry was posed by an ISU senior, who asked the following question about “a plant-based diet” versus “a traditional carnivorous diet:”
“Are there any health benefits associated with eating meat?”
In her reply posted on the college’s public radio station website WGLT.org, Prof. Barnes noted that, “The first thing that struck me about this question is that it was framed in a slightly different way than I’m used to hearing it.”
Barnes explained that students considering vegetarian diets usually are worried about “not getting enough protein on a plant-based diet,” and went on in great detail to discuss proteins, amino acids, essential amino acids, complete proteins, etc. Stuff that, in my opinion, college seniors are already supposed to know.
What, nobody studies basic human physiology in high school anymore? How digestion takes place, how the body produces energy, how muscles, nerves and organs function? I know I’ve sat through many an evening coaching my kids through those kinds of homework assignments when they were in middle school.
Protein? B12? Who cares?
Prof. Barnes then offered the student an analysis that would be relevant — if the questioner were seriously weighing the benefits of vegetarian versus omnivorous diets (which was apparent to me she wasn’t). In reference to essential amino acids, she told the student that, “It makes sense that the composition of an animal-based protein is going to similarly match the composition of our own body … [whereas] plant-based proteins don’t have quite the same quality of essential amino acids.”
That led to a discussion of “mixing and matching” protein sources from plant foods to ensure that a vegetarian would be ingesting all the necessary “building blocks” of protein synthesis, as well as a reference to the fact that animal foods contain micronutrients, such as iron and vitamin B12, not found in plant-based foods.
All great points, all scientifically accurate, all relevant to anyone considering a vegetarian diet.
And none of which matters to virtually any vegetarian I’ve ever encountered.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who went veggie after (finally) understanding that you can mix and match complementary amino acids to ensure the ingestion of compete proteins necessary for various bodily processes. Or who gave anything other than a passing thought about levels of micronutrients.
Those issues are irrelevant to most vegetarians. Their decisions are based on the “horror” that animals are kept in pastures or barns, instead of “running free,” and that those animals are killed to supply us with food, unlike the animated creatures in a Disneyesque fantasyland, who live happily ever after.
That’s why people go veggie, and with rare exceptions, they’re no more concerned about nutrients and protein quality than your typical omnivore.
Which is to say, not much at all.
Virtually all of us modern, sophisticated residents of the western world’s developed countries simply assume that the food industry will take care of our nutritional needs. We get to pick and choose from an array of processed products and prepared foods, based on what tastes good and what we like to eat, and that’s where concerns about diet and health start and stop.
We think we’re so smart because we exist in a 24-7 bubble of information overload. However, not to pick on her, but as that college senior’s question indicates, for all our wealth of knowledge about celebrity lifestyles, current movies and TV shows and video clips of people simply acting weird, we make life-altering decisions — such as what we choose to eat over our lifetimes — based on a lack of knowledge that’s astonishing.
To put it in perspective: How would we react if the student “asked an expert” the following question:
“I’ve heard that it’s way more efficient to text people, rather than vocalizing your thoughts. Is there any benefit to face-to-face conversations?”
Most of us would answer that query with another question: “Are you serious?”
A reply that’s also appropriate for someone asking whether animal foods have any value at all.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.