The large-scale meat industry has been hard-hit by COVID; a recent CDC report highlights several reasons, including conditions that force workers to be in close proximity to each other and create difficulty in adhering to protective gear or sanitation recommendations. There have been high-profile outbreaks in our own state in five counties. I used to work at Chatham Hospital in Siler City, where an outbreak at Mountaire Farms poultry plant has filled beds with COVID patients.
Grocery stores across the country are now limiting how much meat people can buy in the context of lower stock. As a family physician who treats many nutrition- related chronic illnesses, I see this an opportunity to encourage all Americans to reduce their meat intake. Just as reduced air pollution during the pandemic has benefited human health and the environment, so could shifting to more plant-based eating.
Eating foods that come from plants instead of animals has innumerable health benefits, some of the most notable being reductions in risk factors for cardiovascular disease and cancer. According to a 2019 study by the American Heart association, “Plant-based diets, diets that emphasize higher intakes of plant foods and lower intakes of animal foods, are associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and allcause mortality in a general US adult population.”
Plant-based eating is not necessarily synonymous with vegan, which means eating only plants. Vegan diets have been mainstreamed and popularized by documentaries like The Game Changers and Forks over Knives but the truth is that you don’t have to give up meat altogether to experience benefits. Many societies touted as “Blue Zones” – where people regularly live to be 100 – do eat meat, though in much lower amounts than we’re accustomed to in the United States. Sardinia, Italy, is a great example of this, where about 5% of their diet is from meat, poultry, and seafood.
Our collective culture overemphasizes animal sources of protein while in fact, you can make balanced and delicious meals without using any products that come from animals.
Eating plant-based protein like beans, nuts, whole grains, and potatoes in place of poultry, pork, and beef will shrink the factory farming industry that is ripe for outbreaks like COVID.
Free resources abound, like Pinterest and plant-based eating blogs. In Asheville, we are lucky to have many local restaurants (including those that currently offer takeout) offering creative and delicious plant-based meals; I love Luella’s tempeh barbeque and Blue Dream Curry is our go-to lunch spot at work. I approach primary care through the lens of lifestyle medicine, which empowers each of us to consider the ways in which health starts at home. In response to grocery stores carrying less meat, I would challenge our community as follows: Let’s embrace this!
Buy meat, eggs, and dairy to have sparingly throughout the week from our farmer’s markets or other local sources. Embrace your personal soul foods, whatever they may be, and allow them to bring you joy. For most of the week, stick to the simple and delicious world of plant-based nutrition to improve your health.
Dr. Rachel Hines is a Family Medicine physician who lives and practices in Asheville. Her practice, Lantern Health, is a direct primary care practice that serves individuals, families, and small businesses in Asheville. She is a member of the Western Carolina Medical Society’s Lifestyle Medicine Advancement Group.