(New York Post) Watch out, Big Broccoli — Jayne Buxton has your number.
The investigative journalist has combed through more than 1,200 sources and interviews to write “The Great Plant-Based Con” (Hachette), available on Kindle in the US and in hardback next year. In it, she unpacks why going meat-free won’t necessarily save your health or the planet.
Buxton, who lives in the UK, felt compelled to write the book after questioning the bombardment of headlines touting the benefits and virtues of a meat-free diet. In 2021, it was reported that sales of meat were down 12 percent in the US, she writes.
“Around the middle of 2018, I noticed so many headlines and policy documents coming out, all saying extreme things about plant-based,” Buxton told The Post. “And I thought, we need a bit more balance in the argument.”
But the tipping point for her was the James Cameron-directed documentary “The Game Changers,” which champions vegan diets as superior to omnivorous diets and essential to human peak performance.
Many people cut out beef from their diet thinking they are helping fight climate change. But, according to author Jayne Buxton, “You could eat a six-ounce steak three times a week for a year, and your [greenhouse] emissions will be one-sixth less than” a flight across the Atlantic.Shutterstock/hlphoto
To Buxton, the 2018 film was pure propaganda, and she worried how its messaging would play among the public, particularly among young viewers.
“I thought the science was weak and young people were using it as a springboard to veganism. I could see that there might be a health crisis if people adopted these principles,” she said. “And I felt the counter message needed to get out there.”
Here are the commonly-held beliefs about plant-based living that Buxton challenges as myth — and why not only is it OK to order a hamburger sometimes, it may just be the best choice on the menu.
The humble egg has been maligned over the years, but it contains 11% of the protein humans need daily. Egg replacement products, however, typically provide little protein and contain added sugars such as gum cellulose dextrose.Getty Images/EyeEm
Myth: A plant-based diet will make you healthier
Buxton said that most people don’t necessarily understand the metabolic processes that take place in their body — and a lack of scientific understanding leads to confusion about what you need to survive.
Take protein. Not only does food need to contain protein, the protein needs to contain essential amino acids (EAAs). Animal proteins are effective in delivering them, while plant proteins may be missing some. A lack of EAAs may mean that plant proteins aren’t synthesized in the body as effectively.
In order to find the right amino acid levels, people would have to eat much larger quantities of plant proteins to achieve the desired effect, Buxton argues. She explains that hitting your daily EAA target with plant-based protein exclusively would mean eating 1.5 pounds of chickpeas or six cups of quinoa. Meanwhile, one egg provides 11% of protein needs for the day.
Author Jayne Buxton says that over-processed vegan foods like plant-based milks, nut cheeses and soy-based meat substitutes are not necessarily nourishing. What’s more, cutting out dairy also only results in a “miniscule” reduction of greenhouse gases.
Buxton worries that over-processed vegan foods — such as nut milks, nut cheeses and soy-based meat substitutes — have a “health halo” despite not necessarily nourishing the body.
She recently grocery-shopped with the Telegraph and pointed out how an egg replacement product contained gum cellulose dextrose, asking, “That’s sugar. Do you want sugar with your eggs?”
“I think the big message would be to appreciate the nutrient value of different foods, including animal-based foods,” she told The Post. “We’ve put fruits and vegetables on a pedestal.”
While quinoa can enhance a healthy diet, it takes six cups to meet daily protein requirements. And chickpeas: 1.5 pounds per day. The key, Buxton writes, is to balance vegan proteins with animal proteins.Getty Images
Myth: You can trust reports about studies
Every day, new headlines emerge about how bacon is bad, eggs are awful, and even fish isn’t as heart-healthy and nutritious as you might have thought. But Buxton found that, often, the research used to anchor these studies was either a small sample study, based on self-reported food diaries — which have the potential for inaccuracy — or anchored in correlation, not causation.
She cites one example, where a major newspaper reported on a study that found eating leafy greens could reverse aging by two years. Not included in the reporting: The subjects studied had also eaten three weekly servings of liver and up to 10 eggs a week.
“My wish would be that journalists would interrogate studies a little more before they report on them. That would be really helpful,” Buxton said.
Growing plants to provide cooking oils like sunflower oil heavily degrades the environment and is a major cause of tropical deforestation.Getty Images
Myth: A plant-based diet will help the planet
Buxton devotes the second part of her book to how consuming meat, chicken, dairy and fish affects the planet. What she found: Greatly reducing animal products has a minimal effect on the planet’s well being.
The 2015 documentary “Cowspiracy” cited that livestock and their byproducts accounted for 51% of worldwide methane gas emissions. While that number was later debunked, Buxton was shocked to see how low the actual amount may be.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock contribute 14.5% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions, but Buxton also found many scientists believe methane acts differently than other harmful gases, like CO2 — overestimating the impact of methane on global warming and underestimating the harmful effects of fossil-fuel based carbon dioxide emissions.
A chicken shawarma salad with toasted bread, feta cheese, and leaf vegetables.Getty Images/iStockphoto
Increasing produce consumption seems like a smart way to improve health while benefiting the environment. But growing and shipping produce requires a lot of fossil-fuel — while nearly one-third of all produce ultimately ends up in the trash.Shutterstock
During her research, she found that some scholars, including Myles Allen, an Oxford University Professor and an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, believe that methane production by livestock has only a marginal effect on global warming.
“The grip of the problem is warming caused by fossil fuel use. Everything else is irrelevant,” says Buxton. “For me, that’s a crystallizing thought. Cutting out red meat is just a rearranging exercise.”
Even scientists whose research suggests dietary shifts from meat acknowledge that doing so would only marginally decrease greenhouse gas emissions. One recent study suggested that if all of America went meat-free, global warming would only decrease by 6%, with scientists saying that fossil-fuel reduction, carbon sequestering and updating the transportation grid could substantially lower emissions.
A “non-traditional” caesar salad including leafy greens, hard-boiled egg, cheese, golden belly, chicken and croutons.Getty Images
Many people assume reducing dairy intake will help lessen the effects of global warming. The problem is that we typically consume too little milk and milk products to truly make a difference.Shutterstock
Myth: It’s a smart way for an individual to fight climate change
Buxton says that people often want to cut out red meat because they feel they’re doing something productive for the planet, but this “virtual signaling” can cause them to misunderstand the impact on the environment.
“I have friends who told me they had given up red meat, and I asked why, and they were like, ‘Well, this is the one thing we can do.” And I responded, ‘Okay, that’s great, but you could eat a six-ounce steak three times a week for a year, and your emissions will be one-sixth less than that flight you just took across the Atlantic.”
She has also cited cutting dairy for milk alternatives; as the Telegraph pointed out, if a person’s “food footprint is a maximum of 16% of the total individual footprint and milk is a tiny proportion of that, the reduction of greenhouse gases is miniscule.”