Vegetarian? Or Just a Processed Food Junkie?

Modern Day Vegetarians Need to Rethink Things

Most modern-day vegetarians are convinced of their dietary and moral superiority, but they need to be slapped around with some facts.

A Questionable Halo Of Health

The number of hamburgers sold by McDonald’s reached one billion in 1963. The milestone burger was ceremoniously served up on the Art Linkletter TV show to an adoring crowd.

By the late 1970s, the number of hamburgers they’d sold had grown to somewhere around 30 billion. Scientists of the time calculated that if you stacked all those patties on top of one another, you’d have had a pile of meat almost a foot high.

No, no, I’m kidding; they’re meatier than that. A little. Suffice it to say, McDonald’s had sold a hell of a lot of burgers, but something happened in 1977 that affected their blistering sales. It came in the form of the “Dietary Goals” report compiled by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and his committee. In it, they listed their dietary recommendations for all Americans and prominent among them was to cut down on red meat consumption.

Perhaps surprisingly, at least when compared to today, Americans listened and complied with their government’s recommendations and both McDonald’s and Burger King noted a significant decline in their sales.

Their respective research departments were then tasked with developing a healthy alternative to their hamburgers. Burger King won the race by releasing their Original Chicken Sandwich in 1978, but McDonald’s struck back with their creation, the Chicken McNugget, in 1979.

Sales rebounded for both companies. Saturated fat/cholesterol fearing Americans were happy to have what they thought was a healthier choice. Never mind that the Original Chicken Sandwich contained 600 kcal, 31 grams of fat, and 1440 mg. of sodium (96% of the ideal limit, as suggested by the American Heart Association).

And never mind that the Chicken McNugget is one of the most processed food in history, made from ground-up corn-fed chicken that’s glued together with corn-concocted goop, coated with uneasily characterized, corn-derived… stuff, and then deep fried, the final product containing more fat and carbs than protein.

(I guess we shouldn’t complain, because most other brands of chicken nuggets contain nearly the same macronutrient profile as McNuggets, but with the bonus of ground up connective tissue, bone spicules, and a lot more fragmentized blood vessels than anyone would care to know about.)

Americans didn’t know any of that, though. They thought that these meat-alternatives had a halo of health around them. After all, chicken was not red meat. Chicken was low fat. They were, of course, tragically wrong about that halo of health.

It might surprise you that there are stark parallels between that small part of dietary history and what’s going on today with those who strive to eat a modern plant-based or non-meat-eating diet in general.

The modern plant-based/non-red-meat diet people also believe that their diets have a halo of health around them. They believe what they’re doing is better for the environment, better at conserving resources, healthier, and allows them to live a life where their guardian angels are constantly high fiving each other.

Unfortunately, what many of them are doing is anything but all that. In truth, their diets are often unhealthy and environmentally harmful. In short, crap.

No Axe To Grind

Let me quickly preface the rest of this article by stressing that I have no particular axe or meat cleaver to grind on the subject of meat eaters vs. plant eaters and their variants (vegans, flexitarians, etc.). If anything, I’ve always been sympathetic to plant eaters because the idea of the convenient, industrialized death of billions of animals has never sat well with me.

I also believe that climate change is the most important issue of the day, so suffice it to say, I take no pleasure in deflating the biodegradable, sustainable balloon of people who have chosen, for that reason, to eat plant-based or non-red-meat diets.

Oh, one more thing: I need to make a distinction between a traditional plant-based diet and a modern plant-based diet. The former comprises eating pulses (seeds, legumes), vegetables, and whole grains, while people who follow the latter style of eating have embraced the seemingly unholy union between industry and “health food,” the results of which I’ll get to in the following paragraphs.

A Pact With The Devil

There are some painful things people who eat modern-day plant-based diets need to be aware of and J.I. Macdiarmid of the University of Aberdeen in the UK pointed them out in a recent lecture and paper.

His elevator-pitch point was essentially this: People who eat a modern-day plant-based diet have made, in effect, a pact with the Devil. The Devil, in this case, is food manufacturing conglomerates who, in trying to appease the better angels of plant-based eaters while also prying open their wallets, have turned many a plant-based food into a UPF, or ultra-processed food.

In doing so, they’ve created foods that are neither environmentally safe nor nutritionally sound, while also having a deleterious effect on biodiversity.

How’s that glass of almond milk going down now?

Alternatives To Animal-Based Products

A lot of people adopt plant-based diets because of a sincere desire to reduce the consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods (beef, lamb, and dairy).

The idea came down directly from the veritable Mount Olympus of environmentally conscious organizations: The FAO and the WHO. The organizations recently issued a joint report on how to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gasses (GHG) and one of their recommendations was to only eat small amounts of red meat.

There are of course several “meat” substitutes, but each has their problems:

Chicken, Or Poultry In General

Okay, chickens don’t produce methane, so we’re good on GHG emissions, right? Uhh, not really. Firstly, industrially raised chickens live largely off soybeans, which are, in themselves, an environmental problem.

As we eat more and more chickens, we convert more and more land to soybean farms and the processing of said beans contributes to a large amount of GHG, not to mention the effects of deforestation, erosion, and subsequent lack of plant/animal diversity.

Then there’s the chicken shit itself. It, along with the excrement of other poultry, is a large contributor to GHG, specifically ammonia, which is converted to nitrous oxide, a potent GHG.

Chickens alone contribute roughly 790 million tons in CO2 equivalents a year; a pittance compared to beef, but still significant when you take into consideration all the other environmental concerns.

Processed Plant-Based “Meat” Foods

Macdiarmid reported on a 2021 survey of adults in the U.K. and the U.S. found that approximately 52% of flexitarians (those that live largely off plants but have the occasional portion of meat) in the U.K and 46% of flexitarians in the U.S. ate plant-based meat such as sausages, burgers, and mince (ground up meat) at least once a month.

One of their motivations, of course, is health, or at least the perception of health. Unfortunately, many of these foods are categorized as ultra-processed foods, or UPF. It only makes sense that a certain degree of processing is required to turn, say, lentils or soybeans, into “hamburgers,” but these foods are often combined with many more traditional processed foods and additives, which detract mightily from the strived-for healthiness of such products.

As you likely know, a slew of studies has found an association between UPF and negative health outcomes. For instance, a recent meta study (Elizabeth, et al. 2020) found that 37 out of 43 studies reviewed found an association between UPF and at least one adverse health outcome (obesity, cancer, CVD, type II diabetes, depression, etc.).

But those meat substitutes aren’t the main problem when it comes to UPF. There are other plant-based foods that non-meat eaters or meat avoiders use to fill the caloric void because vegetarianism isn’t all salads and mung bean sprouts. Instead, they’re UPFs that are positively squishy with palm oil and palm kernels that are high in saturated fats (see below).

In short, these plant-based foods, regardless of their nutrient profile, are perceived as healthy. They’re also perceived as being kinder to the planet, but that’s often not the case, not the case at all.

Processed Plant Foods And The Environment

How do these processed plant foods hurt the Earth? Let me count the ways.

For starters, these UPF require a great deal of energy to produce. The harvesting of many of the UPF staples such as palm oil, sugar, maize syrup, and various additives also requires lots of land, which usually entails the razing of huge tracts of land that were previously teeming with biodiversity. Further, as these new monocrops grow, they require huge amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, repeatedly kneeing the environment in the groin.

Oh, and take our modern milk analogues such as oat, soy, coconut, almond, or rice. While it might surprise some to think so, Macdiarmid suggests these are all UPFs, most of which have added salt, sugar, oil, and thickening and stabilizing agents.

They also have environmental drawbacks. Take the almonds in almond milk, for instance. Growing just one almond requires 1.1 gallons of water. Growing a pound takes 1,900 gallons. And it’s much the same for any nut you can name. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s just about the same number of gallons needed to raise a pound of beef: 1847 gallons.

Then there’s the farmland needed to grow these crops. Countless acres are razed each year, plowing under formerly biologically diverse areas of land just so you can drink your watery coconut milk every morning: Millions of animals killed, or entire species wiped out. Countless possibly medicinal plants eradicated or made extinct.

Finally, there’s the packaging used to produce these ultra-processed, plant-based foods: Most contain metal, paper, glass, or plastics to make cans, containers, tubes, films, and caps. At least real meat products usually require only a slab of Styrofoam and a thin sheet of plastic wrapping, unless they’re sold by the aforementioned fast-food chains or their relatives and wrapped in paper, Styrofoam, or Happy Meal cardboard boxes.

Almost any way you look at it, eating these meat-alternatives hardly seems like a health-conscious or Earth-conscious decision.

Hey, Cap’n Crunch Cereal Is Vegan

As explained earlier, there’s an important distinction between traditional plant-based diets and modern plant-based diets. The former comprises pulses, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fiber, and healthful seed oils. These diets are typically lower in fat and lower energy intakes.

Modern plant-based diets, as represented largely by younger people (18-24 years old), are far more likely to eat the type of processed plant-based foods described in this article: meat-free sausages, plant-based milk alternatives, and various non-meat Frankenfoods found in environmentally inconvenient packaging. (After all, technically speaking, foods like potato chips, crackers, and Cap’n Crunch are often vegan.)

It could be argued, though, these modern-day vegetarians or meat-avoiders simply chose this diet on a whim; a poorly thought-out way to signal their environmental and/or ethical virtuosity.

Besides, eating a modern-day plant-based diet is easy and convenient. Much of its conveniently packaged and all you’ve got to do is unscrew the cap, tear here, or pry open the clamshell packaging.

Let’s hope these virtue signalers, at some point, research and rethink their diets a bit. As I see it, they have two choices, one, take it a couple of steps further and embrace the traditional vegan or non-meat diet. That means whole, fresh foods, sharp kitchen knives, and a stove and oven. Alternately, they could go back to eating meat while accompanying it with lots of plant matter, aka the flexitarian diet.

The halo of health that emanates from either of these two alternatives glows much brighter than the nutritionally suspect, environmentally destructive one they proudly wear.

Is A Plant-Based Diet Even Worth It?

Ah, the age-old argument, the one that brings meat eaters and plant eaters to a street fight, the former carrying steak knives and the latter carrying biodegradable sporks.

Most of studies point to the health superiority of plant-based diets for non-athletes, at least. As proof of sorts, Macdiarmid, in his paper about the pitfalls of modern-day plant-based diets, refers to a meta-analysis of 98 cross-sectional studies of both vegetarian and vegan diets that found plant-based diets led to a lower relative risk of a bunch of various chronic diseases.

However, one has to narrow their eyes just a little bit when looking at such studies because people who pay even a lick of attention towards their diet generally live healthier lifestyles. I mean, c’mon, show me a vegetarian who chain smokes or wears pants with a 60-inch waist size.

Still, with what we know about the health benefits of the polyphenols and carotenoids in plant matter, it makes perfect sense that vegetarians or those practicing a plant-based diet would have admirable blood values, along with other barometers of health (BMI, blood pressure, etc.).

We can also state, unequivocally, that plant-eaters have, almost without fail, more desirable levels of cholesterol and other blood fats, despite what people who practice the Carnivore Dietsay. This is simply a result of a cozy blend of physics and biology. The fiber in fruits and vegetables sops up the cholesterol that would otherwise be reabsorbed by the small intestine and recycled into the blood stream.

But there are also piles of research about the merits of a meat-based diet, especially for athletes. It doesn’t take an Archimedes, Eureka-type deduction to assume that a healthy diet combines the best of both worlds: Smallish-portions of responsibly raised meat combined with the least processed fruits, vegetables, pulses, and even whole grains.




  1. Macdiarmid JI. The food system and climate change: are plant-based diets becoming unhealthy and less environmentally sustainable? Proc Nutr Soc. 2022 May;81(2):162-167. PubMed.

I just had a moment of realization. I realized that I never considered McDonald’s burgers to be meat. I just thought they were some kind of compressed meat byproduct muck.

And that it never stopped me from eating them. :face_vomiting:


Is there a difference between meat, chicken or plant based muck alternatives? :laughing:

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Great article.
I am trying to get the rest of my family to break free of these processed foods by being an example to them.
I think these processed foods are addictive too. My wife (who grew up with very southern grandparents - fans of all things fried and sugary) seemingly can’t go without these things somedays.
I wish more media coverage would show the negatives of the meat alternatives instead of just showering praises on them. Every time I see an “impossible burger” in the store I want to gag a little.


Not really. But amalgamated muckitarians sounds bad.

Or what ever the Heul people call themselves. :laughing:


I confess, I was initially excited about the fake burgers. Not so much anymore.


Really? I used to love those things, but it’s been at least 20 years since I’ve had one.

Ha! I suppose not.

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The biggest problems I have with plant-based meat in general are:

  1. The false halo over the products implying that plants are healthier for humans than animal protein. They are not, and the real science of the matter suggests the hype will fade as more is known about the “fake meat.” An interesting discussion on this was recently held by Dr. Peter Attia on his podcast with a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry, Dr. Donald Layman. Check it out if you want the real truth of the matter.

  2. The fact that in order to make anyone want to eat the “fake meat”, they have to add half a chemistry lab full of flavorings to make it edible.

This entire issue is largely political in nature and not based in science.

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Yeah. I always looked at it like there’s the normal food- beef, chicken etc, then the “meat” in frozen boxed food, then theres the stuff that is used in McDonald’s burgers. Foods distant cousin.

I gave up all of the fast food stuff a few years ago for health reasons though. Now even the smell of the places kinda bothers me.

I have no objections with the concept of fake meat, only the current execution.

I hear you, but if the apocalypse were upon us, I think I’d cram down a few of those burgers (and fries, and milk shakes) before the nuke, meteor, or earthquake took me out. I remember them as tasting pretty good, despite their nutritional horribleness.


Theres always mitigating circumstance.

In that case, I’d get the double quarter pounder with cheese and a shamrock shake! :rofl:

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I can agree with that.

The thing is, we may be waiting for the healthy “fake meat” as long as we will practical EVs for the road to replace our gasoline powered cars.

The technology isn’t there yet in either case.

It kinda makes me want to drive my gas-powered German sedan to a restaurant for a nice steak while I still can…

So dude… you don’t focus much on the suffering, let alone the rights of the animals you are eating. I dont imagine youd like to be a cow or a pig.

I did say this in the article: “If anything, I’ve always been sympathetic to plant eaters because the idea of the convenient, industrialized death of billions of animals has never sat well with me.” Admittedly, I only gave lip service to the issue, but focusing on that would have changed the intent of the article and started an entirely different, likely contentious, debate.

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I have high hopes for lab grown meat – meat that’s genetically identical to the meat we’re all familiar with, but grown in chemical mediums. All the meat with no animal soul. That’s likely years away, if it even comes to fruition, but I like the idea.

Yes, we do know by now that processed food is not healthy. The modern plant based diet, as you call it, is more of a novelty. It does seem like you’ve glazed over the health benefits of the traditional plant based diet and reductively discounted it as low energy without any citing non-biased research. Of course, I do not mean reliance upon soy foods which, like sugar, need to be eaten minimally if at all.

Actually, I’m Mr. Plant Polyphenol. I’m a huge proponent of plant-based foods and have written probably dozens of articles on the topic. One of my most recent ones:

So we need reciprocation of some sort?

Would it make you feel better if you knew that a cow would be happy to eat you if you were ground up and mixed with the rest of their food?

Because they certainly will.