Ten years ago most UK restaurants would have just one, lonely vegetarian offering on the menu. More than likely it would be the humble mushroom risotto. Meat-free substitutes in supermarkets were a rarity, tofu wasn’t something you’d find at your local Sainsbury’s and vegetarianism as a whole was still considered relatively fringe.
Fast forward a decade and the gastronomic landscape has markedly changed. The increasing popularity of vegetarian diets is reflected in the array of options at our restaurants and shops. There are entire restaurant chains now devoted to plant-powered dishes and once-exotic ingredients like seitan and tempeh are no longer difficult to get hold of.
Data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggests that Brits are eating about 17% less meat than they were a decade ago. And research commissioned by meat alternative brand Quorn last year found that 41% of British families are following a meat-free or “flexitarian” diet.
Times they are a-changing. And so are diets. From animal welfare and environmental concerns to potential health benefits, there are many reasons why someone might switch to vegetarianism. But for some people, there are disadvantages too. Here are some of the pros and cons.
Moral case against killing animals
Many vegetarians take a moral stance against raising and killing animals for food. It’s true that some animals are bred free-range – that is to say, they aren’t reared en masse in cramped, fetid conditions. But even so, an estimated 80 billion animals are slaughtered for food each year and that number seems likely to rise as the appetite for meat grows in developing countries.
Animals are exploited and killed “because we enjoy the taste of their flesh and secretions in a meal that lasts fifteen minutes”, wrote vegan educator and public speaker Ed Winters in a piece for Euro News. “Someone’s entire life taken from them for a fleeting moment of pleasure.”
Hard to replicate the taste
A reason many people give for sticking to a carnivorous diet is an unwillingness to sacrifice something that brings them so much pleasure. Writing for History.com, Dave Roos explained that “we crave meat today, in part, because our brains evolved on the African savanna and are still wired to seek out energy-dense sources of protein”.
Beyond the nutritional value of meat, many people like its distinct taste and texture. Over the past few years, the quality of meat substitutes has risen impressively. But for those who are most committed to their carnivorous inclinations, replacements such as “faken” (veggie bacon) simply pale in comparison.
To give one example, veggie burgers “do not have the chewy, bouncy texture of a meat burger – they’re often a bit mushy”, said culinary research assistant Mariana Lamas Bezerra, of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Canada, in an interview with the BBC.
Benefits for the climate
A key argument for vegetarianism is the impact the meat industry has on the environment. Rearing livestock for food requires a huge amount of land and the production of animal feed on an enormous scale.
According to a recent study carried out by scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands, “one hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide could be removed from the air by the end of the century through veggie diets plus re-wilding farmland”, said the BBC.
Dr Paul Behrens, who led the research, described making a switch to vegetarianism as creating “a double whammy” of positive impacts, as a vegetarian diet not only saves “a huge amount of emissions from avoiding emissions from animal-based agriculture” but also saves land “which can be used to sequester carbon from the atmosphere”.
Risk of not getting enough nutrients
One consideration those opposed to vegetarianism point to is the potential health risks that can be associated with meat-free diets. Professor Ian Givens, director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Reading University, warned in January that the move towards a more plant-based diet should be made “with some caution”.
Givens explained that the health repercussions of an “ill-planned” vegetarian or vegan diet could “last a lifetime”, with consequences including “weak bones, osteoporosis and potential life-changing fractures in adulthood”, said The Times.
Young women, in particular, need to take care to consume enough iron, calcium and magnesium when following a vegetarian diet, as they appear to be most susceptible to nutrient shortfalls. Vegetarians (and vegans) are advised to eat as broad a range of ingredients as possible, to ensure maximum nutritional intake, as well as take vitamin supplements where necessary.
Many vegetarians would argue that their plant-based lifestyle lays the foundation for improved health and wellbeing. The potential risks of excessive red meat consumption as well as processed meats are well documented.
In a Harvard Medical School article called “What’s the beef with red meat?”, Dr Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition, said that there is a “clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death”.
This sentiment was backed up by a large 2021 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, who urged the public “to cut their red and processed meat consumption by three-quarters, or to give it up entirely” after finding that eating processed meat raises the risk of heart disease by a fifth, said The Guardian.
But although people who follow vegan and vegetarian diets generally have a lower risk of heart disease than meat-eaters or pescatarians, a 2019 study involving 48,000 people aged 18 and over found that they had a higher risk of stroke, possibly partly due to a lack of B12 – a vitamin found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy that helps prevent nerve damage.
Meat substitutes can be ultra-processed
But it’s not true to say that all vegetarian food is healthier as a rule. Many of the meat substitutes on offer in supermarkets fall into a category known as ultra-processed food (UPF) as they contain a lot of additives – and are therefore far from a healthier option.
In a piece for The Daily Telegraph, Xanthe Clay said that UPFs are now “widely accepted by food experts to be unhealthy and probably addictive, blamed for the increasing incidence of obesity and poor health worldwide”.
Food writer Bee Wilson described her experience of eating a Beyond Burger – a vegan burger served at an Honest Burger restaurant – for The Guardian. “I was stunned by how close it felt to meat in my mouth, with its rosy pink hue and fragile flesh-like texture,” she wrote. But when Wilson looked up the ingredients, she was shocked to see listed: “pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavours [and] gum Arabic”.