Plant-based diets have been gaining momentum in mainstream culture over the last decade or so. Before this rise in popularity, people who ate a plant-based diet were often thought of as living an alternative lifestyle. The type that ate nothing but brown rice and beans. However, the increase in numbers of people across the world eating this way challenges conventional beliefs that we require animal products to be healthy. Eating plant-based highlights that there may be a healthier, more sustainable way forward.
Plant-based diets in the media: Is it just a fad?
Some celebrities have adopted plant-based diets, including stars like Beyonce and Natalie Portman. Their massively wide reach has influenced millions of followers. Many of whom are also adopting this way of eating. No doubt it added to the increase in popularity of eating plant-based.
A revolutionary documentary called “The Game Changers” was released in 2018 which challenged the stigma that vegans are skinny and weak. It showcased bodybuilders and world-class athletes living exclusively and thriving on plants. Many athletes have forgone animal products and seen massive benefits to their performance. Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic have shown the world that it’s possible to win tournaments while exclusively eating plants.
With so many diets trending these days it’s difficult to know which is the best for our health. The media bombards us with opposing and conflicting views of how to eat. Low carb, high carb, paleo, keto and even the carnivore diet – leaving us feeling confused. When we go to the science the evidence is clear. Most of the experts agree that to improve our health we need to increase our intake of fruits and vegetables and decrease consumption of processed foods.
But what exactly IS a plant-based diet?
Most nutrition experts define plant-based diets as a way of healthful eating. It consists of foods derived from plants with few – if any – foods sourced from animals. The words “vegan” and “plant-based” are used interchangeably these days. People tend to gravitate towards a plant-based diet if they are health conscious. Veganism on the other hand can be seen as an ideology. Avoiding animal products of all kinds, including leather and cosmetics. With so many meat substitutes, packaged goods and high-calorie vegan treats on the shelves, eating a vegan diet does not always equate to optimal health.
The next level of healthful eating is a “whole food, plant-based” diet. It eliminates processed foods, added oils and sometimes refined salt and sugar. Eating whole plant foods achieves good health through consuming high volumes of colourful vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. It’s a diet rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and phytonutrients.
Fibre is also essential to good health and is only found in plants. A recent study in the Lancet suggests that a higher intake of fibre from plant foods has shown a decrease in all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Unfortunately, most adults in the developed world consume less than half the recommended intake of fibre as many are not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
But where do you get your protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient. However, due to the popularity of paleo and keto diets in mainstream culture, the emphasis on “protein” as a food group has grown, to the detriment of our health. The importance of protein in the diet has been overemphasised and it is generally overconsumed. Protein isn’t a steak. It’s a group of essential and non-essential amino acids that we require as a part of a healthy diet. The take-home message is that all of the essential amino acids, those that we cannot make ourselves, are found in plants. For long term health, we need less than 25 % of our caloric intake to come from protein. Some of the largest, strongest land animals – think gorillas – thrive on a plant-based diet.
Benefits of a plant-based diet
Eating plant-based shouldn’t be thought of as a “diet”. A diet infers that someone would go on it, restrict their food intake to reduce their weight, and then go off it. A plant-based diet is considered a way of eating for long term health outcomes.
It’s no secret that an unhealthy diet is the leading cause of many chronic diseases in the developing world. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, followed closely by cancers. Conversely in developing countries, infectious diseases are the leading cause of death while many people die malnourished and of nutritional deficiencies.
In the developed world, many chronic diseases are implicated to be caused by a high intake of saturated fats and animal protein. Mostly preventable by eating a plant-based diet. Animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy, are a concentrated source of saturated fat and can increase LDL cholesterol, leading to heart attacks and strokes. On the other hand, saturated fats are only found in minuscule amounts in plant foods (besides coconut and palm oil). That’s why a plant-based diet can be protective against cardiovascular diseases.
Weight loss is often a positive side effect of a plant-based diet. When changing their diet people often eat more to keep weight on. Eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains is possible as they are low in calories and nutrient-dense. If weight loss is a focus, oils, nuts seeds and avocados should be limited until a healthy weight is obtained.
Other benefits of a plant-based diet centre around sustainability and reducing our impact on the planet. Moving away from a meat-based agricultural system reduces water use, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. Undoubtedly there are also benefits for animal welfare. This along with reducing the risk of the spread of zoonotic diseases and subsequent pandemics arguably highlights a plant-based diet as the way of the future for the humans on this planet.