Plant-Based Diet: A Solution for Minimizing Antibiotic Resistance?

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “antibiotic”?

For many, a visit to the doctor’s office comes to mind where our physician prescribes a treatment and sends us off to the pharmacy. After that it would seem that all we need to do is take the proper dosage to eradicate the bacteria—right? Unfortunately it’s not that simple, and closer look into antibiotics and their use will bring you shocking and disturbing facts that are not so obvious.

In the United States, 80% of antibiotics are consumed via agriculture and aquaculture. Drugs are given to pigs to speed up growth and infused into food pellets given to salmon in sea-cages. While we travel from doctor to pharmacy, passing ‘checkpoints’ to obtain prescriptions, the antibiotics in this farming sector are priced low, and there is little regulation of their use. All a farmer has to do is walk into his local feed store and buy them over the counter. These antibiotics are labeled “non-pharmaceutical-grade,” but make no mistake--the title doesn’t change the large scale effects of their promiscuous overuse.

The alarming fact is, the effectiveness of our “pharmaceutical-grade” antibiotics is waning—a growing threat to public health. Terms like “superbug” have crept into our consciousness as roughly two million Americans fall sick every year and about 23,000 die from antibiotic-resistant infections. So where is the link? In their 2013 report, Antibiotic Threats in the United States, The CDC spotlights the meat industry as the main driver of this resistance. Their infographic attached to the report lays out the big picture connections:

The recommendation at the bottom of the image couldn’t be clearer: “Simply using antibiotics creates resistance. These drugs should only be used to treat infections.” In some ways the Food and Drug Administration has taken heed of this warning. As of December 2013 a new policy was put into place to begin “phasing-out” the indiscriminate use of antibiotics for growth promotion in cows, pigs, and chickens raised for meat. Instead of heading to their local feed store, food producers will soon need a veterinarian’s prescription specifically to prevent disease in their animals. Although some say this opens a loophole that will allow the same low doses of antibiotics simply by citing the need for disease prevention in their livestock, this is at least a step in the right direction on a policy level. However, a key question remains: is the FDA policy, which is still voluntary, too late to stop the antibiotic resistance spread? Just as we know bacteria are not particular whether they colonize a human or a milk cow, they are also not simply confined to political or geographical borders, especially in this current age of global interconnectedness.

In this case, the practice of eating for the health of yourself and for the health of the whole planet could not be more applicable. Along with thinking about how we eat, what we eat—from source to plate—can have a huge impact on our own and other’s health in more ways than one. While has not been determined  that eliminating animal-based proteins from your diet will totally protect you from antibiotic resistance, a plant-based diet remains a possible solution to minimize the effects, especially if we are mindful about where our food is coming from, as well as how it is cultivated and prepared.