If there was one thing to emerge at the end of 2019, it was a renewed focus on “plant-based” eating, vegetarianism and veganism. Driven by multiple factors from climate change, environmental concerns, animal welfare and of course perceived nutritional benefits. Netflix’s documentary “The Game Changers” sparked heated debates on the pros and cons of a vegan diet in the context of sports performance. The headlines were never short on stories. The Economist’s reviewed 2019 as “The year of the Vegan” and the BBC kickstarted 2020 asking “Why are vegan diets on the rise?”. So why are plant-based diets trending?
Firstly, lets define terms.
–Plant-based = A diet consisting mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits, and with few or no animal products.
– Vegetarian = A diet free from animal foods such as meat and fish, but containing derivatives such as dairy, eggs and honey.
– Vegan = A diet free from animal foods and derivatives such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.
The first thing to note is that a plant-based diet is not necessarily synonymous with vegan. They are actually separate things. A plant-based diet has a heavy focus on plant-foods but does not explicitly avoid animal products. Vegetarianism takes this concept one step further by limiting animal products to dairy and eggs, whilst veganism fully avoids all animal products and derivatives. So moving towards a plant-based model of eating may mean different things to different people. Some may intend it as a choice focused on eating healthy wholefoods whilst maintaining a small degree of animal products whilst some may opt for a full plant-based diet.
Are plant-based diets healthier?
As with all things nutrition-related its about balance. Moving towards including more plant-based wholefoods in your everyday diet is full of benefits such as higher fibre content, and a wide range of vitamins and minerals contained in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. The current recommendation for a healthy plate, as advised by the British Association for Nutrition & Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) is to aim for at least half a plate of plant-foods. If you’re starting from a diet which is currently low in plant-foods it’s important to slowly build towards incorporating more and more into your everyday diet. It can be challenging to make a hard switch from one form of eating to another without a reasonable transition period. It’s also important to consider variety so that not only are you including more plants, but are aiming for a wide variety to give the widest range of nutrients. Repetitive eating, over the long-term, can limit the nutrients you’re exposed to and potentially lead to imbalances or deficiencies, so variety is key. Consider also recent headlines from the World Cancer research Fund (WCRF) linking red and processed meat consumption to colorectal cancer or the contamination and accumulation of heavy metals in fish, its easy to understand why moving towards a predominantly plant-based diet may be healthful.
Taking animal products out of the equation
For those wishing to fully exclude animal products, its important to understand which nutrients need to be replaced with plant-based alternatives. Meat, Fish and Eggs are a source of bio-available protein, made from amino acids (some of which are essential), which the body uses for growth and repair. Plant foods can provide many of the same amino acids but in varying quantities, so plant diversity is again important to ensure an optimal intake. Animal foods are also nutrient-dense in vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12, as well as essential fatty acids such as omega 3. These nutrients are essential to healthy metabolic functions and are harder to get from plant foods (although possible) and are not necessarily available in the same volume or as bio-available. Simply put, removing animal foods is perfectly possible but should be implemented carefully to ensure an optimal intake of nutrients from plant foods. Ensure to include a variety of plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils and pulses, and iron-rich leafy green vegetables, and nuts containing omega 3 fatty acids and so on. Read up on removing animal products and ensure you know where your nutrients are coming from.
Less is more, so retaining a small quantity of carefully sourced, high quality animal products may be acceptable to some people within the framework of a plant-based diet to ensure an intake of essential nutrients. In many cases this may be to support specific health or life stage considerations.
Avoiding carb-overload and including healthy fats and protein
A common mistake when transitioning towards plant-based eating is to become over-reliant on carbohydrate foods, namely breads, grains and cereals. Ironically I’ve seen many vegetarian and vegans in clinic who claim to not overly liking plant foods. The result is a diet filled with a vast array of processed foods now available (more on that below). Maintaining a healthy ratio of quality protein and healthy fats is important for balanced nutrition as these nutrients are energy-dense and very satiating. Between them they provide structural support to the body’s vital organs, cells and muscular-skeletal system as well as the base ingredients from which the body makes hormones and other signalling molecules. Animal products such as eggs, dairy, fish and meat contain what is known as ‘complete proteins’ or specifically contain all nine essential amino acids. Most plant foods are incomplete—meaning certain amino acids are missing from the protein mix. To be fair the terms complete and incomplete are a little misleading as over the course of a day’s meals its perfectly possible to get an adequate supply of amino acids from plant foods. What is important however is, knowing this. Knowledge is power and the more nutritional know-how you have, the easier to make informed dietary choices. So lets look at fats. Also essential. Our brain is the fat-organ made of c 60% fat. Fatty acids, such as omega 3 from oily fish are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain’s integrity and ability to perform. Limiting animal products is part of the plant-based ethos however maintaining good sources of proteins and fats is key, from either carefully selected and ethically sourced animal products, or plants. Plant sources to consider include nuts, seeds and olives for both protein and oils, legumes (beans and pulses) for protein, and avocado, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil for healthy fats. Some grains, such as quinoa, also have a high proportion of complete protein (one of the few plants to do so).
The low down of plant-based processed foods
Just like all processed foods there are cautions. The estimated sales of meat-free foods in 2018 was £740m so like all other categories its a multiple million pound business. Even fast-foods giants MacDonald’s, KFC, Burger King and Greggs have all launched vegan options on their menus highlighting not only a consumer need but a commercial opportunity. Just like other processed foods there are good and bad. Just because it’s labelled as plant-based it doesn’t mean to say it’s healthy. Reading the label is always advisable so that you can see exactly what’s in the food you plan to eat. Does it have a good protein ratio? Is it packed with sugars? How many ingredients are there in total? What kind of ingredients – natural wholefoods or cheap fillers? Plant-based processed foods are likely to be as over-processed as their animal product counterparts and may include potentially problematic ingredients such as genetically-modified soy. Stick to products with the simplest ingredients lists (5 or less ingredients), made from recognisable wholefoods and quality proteins such as nuts, seeds and legumes.
Plant food trends, animal foods, and the environmental impact
Much of the talk around plant-based diets is about the reduced environmental and carbon impact when compared to livestock. The vegan society state that “The production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment – from crops and water required to feed the animals, to the transport and other processes involved from farm to fork. The vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction”. Whilst the UK consumption of red meat is down 30% in a decade, according to the Food Standard Agency’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), overall meat consumption is unchanged, highlighting a likely switch from red meat to other, rather than a decrease. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that livestock is about 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people. So where does this leave us when it comes to the environment? The Guardian wrote an informed piece on “The true cost of eating meat” back in 2018 looking at land use, deforestation, water use and pollution, as well as scratching the surface on animal welfare in factory farms, and the potential link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. The article quotes an influential study in 2010 of the water footprints for plants versus meat demonstrating how much more water is required for animal products (see below).
– 322 l/kg = vegetables
– 962 l/kg = fruit
– 4325 l/kg = chicken
– 9063 l/kg = nuts
15415 l/kg =beef
Note however that nuts come up higher than chicken and reflect on how much the demand for nuts and nut-based products (almond milk ecc) has likely grown between 2010 and 2019. Statistics for California which produces over 80% of the worlds almonds show a 250% increase between 2010-2015. It takes approximately 15 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds, making almonds one of the most water-intensive crops in the state, which it’s worth mentioning is also suffering from increased droughts. That’s a lot of thirsty nut trees.
With this in mind it’s worth stating that the demand for certain trendy plant foods, often called ‘super foods” also has a knock on effect to the environment. Statistics for avocado growth in Mexico show that 220.3 thousand hectares of land were planted in 2017, up from 139.8 thousand hectares in 2011 resulting in increased deforestation and water use. The increase in avocado value has led to mafia cartels entering the marketplace for what is now being dubbed ‘blood avocados‘, a fruit now considered more valuable than cannabis. Every global demand comes at a cost. There has been such a spike in the price of quinoa from Bolivia, due to demand from Western countries, that it has become unaffordable for people in their own country. According to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, “Quinoa can play an important role in eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty.” Yet many Bolivians are now relegated to eating cheaper, inferior grains as a result of global demand for quinoa. Within the context of a plant-based diet, labeling certain plants as “superfoods” has far-reaching repercussions. What is clear is that when demand exceeds supply there will always be a socio-economic-environmental impact. This is true of both plant and animal products.
There is no easy solution to the current food industry model. Agriculture, food and farming remains one of the biggest economic sectors globally, supporting billions of peoples livelihoods.
Transitioning towards a diet more dominant in whole plant foods, and with reduced animal foods, has both nutritional and environmental merits. Consumer demand will inevitably drive the agenda. Sourcing ethical, organic, locally grown / farmed , seasonal foods is one way to influence the food chain and hopefully reduce our individual carbon footprint. There is much to debate also about excessive portion size and food waste but that’s for another day.
Plant diversity is central to a successful plant-based style of eating. More variety equals more nutrients. And less focus on so-called super-foods may help the environment longer-term and prevent over production of the nuts, avocados and quinoa’s of this world.
However you choose to eat. Be mindful.
Claire Sambolino MSc
Registered Nutritionist & Certified Dietary Educator
mBANT, CNHC, mIFM, FHT
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