World Vegetarian Day: FAQ: Which claims about vegetarians are true – and which are not?

Vegetarianism has been a hot topic in Germany for years.

World Vegetarian Day: FAQ: Which claims about vegetarians are true – and which are not?

Vegetarianism has been a hot topic in Germany for years. According to the Federal Association of Consumer Organizations, around eight million people in this country currently eat a meat-free diet, i.e. around ten percent of the population - and the trend is rising. Many see this as a contribution to protecting the climate, animals or their own health. Others don't believe in such effects. On the occasion of World Vegetarian Day on Sunday (October 1st) a few theses in the fact check:

Claim: Vegetarian diet is better for the climate and animals. Rating: True.

Facts: "It is actually the case that vegetarian diets are better for the climate and also for many other environmental categories, such as nitrate pollution in water bodies," explains Hyewon Seo from the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). According to Elisa Kollenda, consultant for sustainable nutrition at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in Germany “the climate footprint of our diet could be reduced by 47 percent through purely vegetarian food consumption.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 33 billion chickens, 1.6 billion cattle and almost a billion pigs and sheep are currently kept worldwide. The animals require huge areas and amounts of feed, which causes lasting damage to the climate and environment.

According to the FAO, ruminants produce methane, which accelerates global warming. In addition, ecosystems suffer because land use contributes to the extinction of species and cleared forest areas fail as natural climate protectors. A study by the University of Bonn came to the conclusion in 2022 that industrialized nations worldwide would ideally have to reduce their meat consumption by 75 percent in order to meet global climate goals and continue to feed humanity in the future.

Claim: Vegetarians are doing just as much damage to the planet through meat substitutes like soy.Rating: Misleading.

Facts: Millions of hectares of unique habitats have been destroyed by soy cultivation in recent years, according to the WWF. This has led to a drastic decline in biodiversity in the corresponding regions. But this is not just due to vegetarians: 70 percent of the soy grown worldwide comes from meat consumption because the soy is used for animal feed instead of for direct human consumption.

Claim: Vegetarian diet protects animals. Rating: Partly true.

Facts: According to figures from the Federal Statistical Office, more than 750 million farm animals were slaughtered for food production in Germany in 2022 - including pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens and turkeys. That's more than two million per day. Compared to the previous year, meat production fell by 8.1 percent.

The German Farmers' Association emphasizes on its website: "The housing conditions in Germany are increasingly geared towards the needs of farm animals, for example through better stable climate, higher feed quality, hygiene, animal health management and more targeted breeding methods."

Lea Schmitz from the Animal Welfare Association argues that most animals today still live in animal welfare-contrary farming systems and high-performance breeding that reduces them to pure production units. "In their cramped environment, they neither have enough space or opportunities to retreat nor can they live out their natural needs. All of this leads to illness, stress, frustration and behavioral problems."

Therefore, a vegetarian diet is “already an important first step towards greater animal protection,” says Schmitz. However, she also emphasizes: "Unfortunately, milk and egg production also causes great animal suffering. For example, dairy cows and laying hens usually also die at a young age as soon as they can no longer perform at their best." For the Animal Welfare Association, the more consistent path to greater animal protection is veganism, which also avoids animal products such as eggs, cheese or honey.

Claim: Vegetarian diet is healthier and helps you lose weight. Rating: Basically correct.

Facts: According to consumer advice centers, a vegetarian diet has “proven health benefits”. It is said: "If you avoid meat and eat a diverse and varied diet, you will be well supplied with all the important nutrients." Germans consume around a kilo of meat every week, according to the UBA. However, the German Nutrition Society recommends significantly less with regard to health: 300 to 600 grams. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meat as "carcinogenic" and unprocessed red meat as "probably carcinogenic".

For the consumer advice centers, a vegetarian diet is healthy as long as milk and its products are consumed. Supplements can be used to compensate for possible deficiencies in vitamin B12, which is mainly absorbed through animal products (which also include dairy products). The Leipzig neurologist Veronica Witte, who led a study on vegetarian nutrition, points out certain toothpastes or build-up injections.

Also: According to a 2020 study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, people have a lower body mass index on average when they eat fewer animal products. A meat-heavy diet can lead to weight gain.

Claim: Children cannot develop healthily without meat. Rating: False.

Facts: "A well-composed, mixed vegetarian diet with consumption of dairy products and eggs can enable healthy child growth and development even without meat consumption," says Berthold Koletzko, Chairman of the Nutrition Commission of the German Society for Child and Adolescent Medicine. However, there is a "slightly higher risk of a suboptimal supply of some nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 DHA." DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid.

Here too, suitable dietary supplements can come into consideration. WWF speaker Kollenda points out that children's health is fundamentally based on a balanced diet and does not depend on whether meat is eaten or not: "A vegetarian diet that is varied and also includes plant-based protein sources such as legumes and nuts and animal protein from dairy products, is also suitable for children and young people."

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