Where’s The Beef? It’s Nowhere To Be Found
Your guide to plant-based eating.
When attendees at this year’s Golden Globe Awards were served a meal free of not just meat, but all animal products, it barely raised a well-groomed brow. What might have been dismissed in the past as Hollywood posturing today felt right in step with changing dietary views.
Interest in plant-based eating has grown by leaps and bounds, embraced as much for its health benefits as for concerns about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. And the prevalence of products like meat alternatives in mainstream eateries — and of non-dairy "milks" and other plant-based products at grocery stores — has made the choice even easier.
Importantly, what was once the realm of health-food or animal-activist advocates, plant-based eating has received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the science community, suggesting that this "trend" might be here to stay.
Plant-based eating defined
But first, what does "plant-based" eating really mean? Some consider a plant-based diet to be vegan, which eschews the consumption of any animal products, often out of concern for animal welfare and the environment. Others maintain that a vegetarian diet, which allows for dairy and eggs, or pescatarian, which also allows fish, are still plant-based.
Still others argue that the inclusion of small amounts of organic meat or poultry confers the health benefits of plant-based eating, promotes more respectful animal and environmental stewardship, and provides key nutrients found in meat and dairy products.
The term lacks a universal definition, admits Alicia Romano, a nutritionist at Tufts Medical Center.
“At the heart of it [is] a way of eating where plant-based foods make up the majority of your plate,” she says. “It does not inherently mean vegan or vegetarian; instead, you are proportionally choosing more plant-based foods over meat and dairy.”
Either way you slice it, nutrition scientists agree that eating more plants and less animal products is just plain better for us.
In a meta-analysis published last July, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at data from more than 300,000 people. Those who ate a predominately plant-based diet — defined as greater in plant-based foods than their peers, and included vegan and vegetarian diets, and also those who infrequently consumed meat — had a 23 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Another recent study found that people who ate a mostly plant-based diet were “consistently and statistically” at reduced risk of heart disease, and also have slower weight gain over time, according to Qi Sun, an associate professor in the school’s department of nutrition who was involved with both projects.
In addition, he says, “many, many studies” have shown that consuming red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of numerous health problems, including diabetes, coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and excessive weight gain.
“So, if you put all those pieces together, eating a plant-based diet is healthier,” Sun says.
This recommendation holds for people at every stage of life.
“There are so many potential benefits to incorporating a robust amount of plant-based foods in the diet, even as you age,” says Romano. It automatically increases fiber intake, which aids digestion and may help you lose weight; decreases systemic inflammation, which is linked to numerous chronic health conditions; and immediately improves your vitamin and mineral intake.
But, what about the protein?
For all the noted benefits of adding more plants to your diet, some people may worry whether they can provide all the nutrients humans need. Things like iron, vitamin B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein are abundant in animal products — and in lesser or negligible amounts in plant sources.
Yet nutritionists like Romano say that only people with extreme or restrictive diets should be concerned with nutritional deficiencies. With careful planning, it’s entirely possible to get your nutritional needs met from a healthy, balanced plant-based diet. For one thing, a lot of popular foods are fortified with nutrients. For example, vitamin B12, which is necessary for proper nerve function and abundant in animal products like liver, beef, eggs, and dairy, and some seafood, is often added to non-dairy milks and cereals.
And protein is found in many foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and other beans, and grains like quinoa. Meanwhile, taking supplements — such as a good multivitamin and even vegetarian sources of omega-3s — can help fill any potential nutritional gaps.
Still, you may want to consult a registered dietician before drastically changing your diet or if you know you have specific nutritional needs.
Nutritionists have one caveat to planning a plant-based diet. If you’re eating loads of bread or other refined carbohydrates, snack foods and sugary drinks — even if they’re technically plant-based — you won’t get the health benefits that you would from whole foods.
“The [health] risk reductions are only for people who eat a healthy plant-based diet,” Sun says.
Curious about plant-based eating? Nutritionists offer advice to get started. If you’re encouraged by the news about plant-based eating but don’t know how to make it work for you, don’t stress. You don’t need to make drastic changes or do it all at once.
“I would encourage individuals to take a step back, evaluate their current way of eating, and take small steps to incorporate more plant-based foods,” advises Alicia Romano, RD.
This might be as simple as adding more fruits and vegetables to each meal, downsizing the meat portion of meals and substituting a plant-based food instead, or trying to eat one meatless-free meal one more time each week.
Other ideas include:
Fill at least two-thirds of your plate at each meal with at least 2/3 plant-sourced foods — including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes — and healthy fats, like avocado.
Eat only plant-based foods one day a week, like Meatless Mondays.
Eat two meatless meals a day, and just a small amount of animal protein at the other meal.
Participate in a meatless-eating challenge, like January’s “Veganuary.”
Swap out one meat or animal product in your diet at a time for a plant-based one.
Explore! The buzz around plant-based eating means there are also more options available in restaurants and grocery stores. Aim to try a new plant-based food preparation each week.
Kelle Walsh is an editor and writer in Boulder, Colorado.