Plant-Based Eating 101: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts Box
- “Plant-based” does not necessarily mean “vegan;” rather, the term encompasses a variety of ways of eating that focus on plants instead of animal products.
- Plant-based eating has deep roots in some cultures and diets, including Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Mediterranean cuisine.
- The US eats the most meat per capita of any country in the world, with the average person consuming nearly 225 pounds of meat per year.
- Between 2014 and 2018, vegan diets among Americans grew by 600%.
- Animal agriculture consumes about 20% of all freshwater on Earth and accounts for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
- A plant-based diet can provide 100% of the necessary protein intake and can aid weight loss, strengthen cardiac health, and reduce the likelihood of diabetes and some cancers.
What is Plant-Based Eating?
It’s a lot like how it sounds. In basic terms, plant-based diets are composed mostly or entirely of plants: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains. Contrary to its colloquial usage, “plant-based” doesn’t automatically mean “vegan.” The term encompasses various ways of eating that put plants center stage, but depending on the type of plant-based diet, it might have different allowances for meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, and fish, as well as other animal products.
Types of Plant-Based Eating
Also called “lacto-ovo vegetarian,” a typical vegetarian diet includes no meat, fish, or poultry, but still includes dairy and eggs. However, there are different diets within vegetarianism as well: lacto-vegetarians eat dairy, but no eggs; ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but no dairy; and pescatarians eat both dairy and eggs, as well as fish.
Unlike vegetarian eating, a vegan diet includes no animal products at all, which often includes non-dairy animal-derived products like honey, gelatin, and lanolin. Vegans usually refrain from buying products made with animal parts too, like fur or leather. Thus, veganism is a diet, but can also extend to non-food-based items.
One subset of veganism – “raw” veganism – also excludes all foods of animal origin, but focuses on unprocessed and often uncooked foods. A raw vegan diet excludes foods that have been heated above 115ºF, which lose some of their nutritional value in the cooking process. Instead, raw foods are blended, juiced, soaked, or sprouted during preparation. Some raw vegans adhere to this diet in percentages – eating raw foods 80-90% of the time, for example – and make certain allowances for cold-pressed oils, fermented foods, etc.
Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
A whole food plant-based diet looks a lot like (or, is identical to) a raw vegan diet. Adherents eat foods in the form they take in nature: not processed, and sometimes not cooked. The diet cuts down on (or cuts out entirely) processed foods like oil, sugar, and four, instead focusing on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The difference between this diet and veganism is really the processed foods; it does not allow for substitute meat or dairy products, like plant-based butters or meats.
Origins of Plant-Based Eating
Historically Plant-Based Cultures
As much as plant-based eating can seem like a trend for influencers and health nuts, it has a long history in many cultures. 5-6% of people in the US and Europe are vegetarian, compared with 19% of the population in Asia. Indian cuisine is highly plant-based due to cultural and religious traditions; 81% Indian adults restrict meat in their diet somehow, including refraining from eating certain meats or not eating meat on certain days, and almost 40% say they are fully vegetarian. Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Mediterranean diets are also largely plant-based.
Plant-Based Eating in the U.S.
In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in plant-based eating in the US. Between 2014 and 2018, vegan diets among Americans grew 600%, and 62% (or 7.9 million) households now buy plant-based products, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. The grocery shelves look much different than they did a few decades ago, too. Plant-based foods are now offered in 30 different categories in grocery stores (and milk, eggs, and butter are just the start). Most fast-food chains even offer vegan or vegetarian options now, catering to this new demand. Fine dining has embraced plant-based eating as well, with renowned restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Geranium in Copenhagen making the switch to a plant-based menu. With celebrities like Harry Styles, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo speaking out about their plant-based diets, eating vegan or vegetarian is becoming increasingly a part of mainstream culture.
Why Go Plant-Based?
While interest in plant-based foods is growing, the American diet is still highly meat-based. The US eats the most meat per capita of any country in the world, with the average person consuming nearly 225 pounds of meat per year. However, many Americans have made the switch to plant-based diets for a range of reasons: from the environmental impact of meat and dairy, to animal and human rights, to personal health.
Many vegans, vegetarians, and other plant-based eaters cut animal products from their diet on the grounds of animal cruelty. Over 99% of farm animals in the US and over 90% worldwide are raised through factory farming: an intensive, large-scale farming operation. To support America’s meat consumption, animals are raised as quickly as possible, with little regard for animal welfare and health. On factory farms, animals like cows, chickens, and pigs spend their entire lives indoors in dirty, packed quarters where birds often can’t spread their wings, and larger animals sometimes don’t even have enough space to sit down. These animals are taken from their parents shortly or immediately after birth, and are physically altered – tails docked, beaks clipped – to keep them from harming one another. Many animals are genetically altered as well: chickens are bred to grow larger pectoral muscles (for the chicken breasts that are desirable to consumers), cows to produce more milk, pigs to grow larger faster. Cows are often bred without horns so more can fit in a cage, and chickens are altered to grow so large that they often can’t support their own body weight. Many people go plant-based out of acknowledgment for the emotional, sensitive, and intelligent nature of animals that are tortured in the process of factory farming.
The environmental impact of meat and dairy is another motive for plant-based eating. Huge amounts of resources go into raising animals for meat and dairy products, including vast swaths of farmland to grow food in order to feed them. Corn and soy – major foodstuffs for farmed animals – take up about one-third of US agricultural land, but only 10% of that is eaten by humans. Because it takes 25 calories of food to produce just 1 calorie of beef, it’s understood that eating meat requires disproportionate land use. In fact, if we stopped eating meat and dairy, we could cut agricultural land by 75% and still feed the whole world. Land is also used to raise cattle. Of all the deforestation occurring in the Amazon, two-thirds is directly related to cattle ranching. When this land is cleared to raise animals or produce feed, important ecosystems are compromised and biodiversity lost. 60% of global biodiversity loss is attributed to the food we eat, and meat plays a huge role. Air, soil, and water pollution are also inherent to factory farming. The huge amounts of manure produced by animals are usually stored in “lagoons,” which run off into natural waterways and create dead zones in water bodies.
Raising animals also requires a lot of water, both to irrigate crops and hydrate the animals themselves. Animal agriculture consumes about 20% of all freshwater on Earth – and, because animals are often raised on factory farms, they are not able to graze, which would require proportionately less water than feeding them with the corn and other foodstuffs they consume in industrial settings.
Another significant detriment to ecosystems is the overfishing of oceans, by which fish populations are diminished faster than they can replenish themselves, setting ecosystems out of balance. Plastic pollution in oceans also accumulates in part due to abandoned nets and other fishing gear from large-scale fishing operations.
Alongside resource use and pollution, the production of animal products directly contributes to climate change. Raising animals produces greenhouse gasses like methane (released through animal belches, flatulence, and manure), CO2, and nitrous oxide, and destroys forests for agricultural land and eliminates carbon sinks. In all, the livestock sector accounts for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. A recent UNFCCC report lists reduced meat consumption as an important way to adapt to/mitigate climate change. If we are to stay within 1.5ºC of warming – which is considered the threshold we must maintain in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change – then meat consumption must be curbed.
Meat and dairy production is also a matter of environmental justice and racism for the people who work in these facilities. Slaughterhouse workers are often low-income, undocumented, and/or people of color, who are exposed to biological hazards and dangerous working conditions. On average, the slaughterhouse industry results in an average of two human amputations per week. Nearby communities also suffer from factory farming facilities, which are often placed in low-income rural areas. The air and water pollution from manure lagoons and other sources has led to well-documented adverse health outcomes for people who live nearby.
Health Benefits of Plant-Based Eating
Eating a plant-based diet has numerous health benefits. Not only can a whole-food, plant-based diet prevent and control some diseases, but it can actually reverse their effects. This is not to say that a plant-based diet will cure chronic illnesses, but it can aid weight loss, strengthen cardiac health, and reduce the likelihood of diabetes and some cancers.
Antibiotics are used frequently to prevent illness and disease in the close quarters and unhealthy living conditions of factory farms. The WHO reports that in some countries, 80% of antibiotics are given to animals, not humans. Thus, these antibiotics are present in factory-farmed meat products consumed by humans, creating resistance and making it harder to treat infections when they occur.
Many people are drawn to vegan and vegetarian eating for their weight-loss benefits. When eating a mostly whole, plant-based diet, weight loss is sustained for longer than other diets, like Atkins or keto. Lower BMI is linked to plant-based diets, and one review found that over an 18-week period, vegetarians lost 4.5 pounds more than non-vegetarians.
Reduced Instances of Illness
A plant-based diet may benefit cardiac health and reduce cholesterol. A 2019 survey of 99 studies found that a diet of mainly plant-based whole foods is associated with much lower rates of cardiovascular disease than diets rich in dairy and meat. A 2018 review also found that plant-based diets were related to reduced instances of type 2 diabetes, in part due to better-functioning beta cells. There is even evidence to suggest that it reduces the risk of developing certain cancers, including prostate and breast cancer.
A diet based on plants and whole foods might even help you live longer. The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health found that a shift to a plant-based diet combined with a 50% reduction of sugar, red meat, and other less-healthy foods has the potential to prevent 11 million deaths each year.
How Do You Get Enough Nutrients?
When transitioning to a plant-based diet, many people worry about getting enough nutrients after taking animal products off their plate. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – the largest nutrition organization in the US – however, vegetarian and vegan diets are completely safe and appropriate for children, pregnant people, and athletes.
When done correctly, a plant-based diet is often more nutritious than a meat-centered diet, as a person is more likely to eat a greater proportion of fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and contain essential vitamins and minerals. Of course, these health benefits are only achieved if meat is replaced with nutritious foods, rather than filling the space with more carbs or highly-processed products. There is also some evidence that shows that meat is less nutritious than it used to be; six intensively-reared chickens now have the equivalent omega-3 content of just one chicken raised in the 1970s.
It is true, however, that without meat and dairy, a plant-based eater needs to seek certain nutrients from other sources, especially protein, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Protein intake is usually a main concern for people going plant-based, as the prevailing belief is that humans need meat in order to get enough protein. However, a plant-based diet (vegetarianism, veganism, etc.) can supply 100% of your necessary protein intake. Just look to athletes like tennis legend Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, Mike Tyson, and Chris Paul, who all eat some sort of plant-based diet. In fact, Americans eat about two times as much protein as we need.
- Beans, lentils, and other legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Meat substitutes and soy products like tofu and tempeh
- Grains like quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, and whole-wheat pasta
- Nutritional yeast
- Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, potatoes, lima beans, green peas, avocado, kale, artichokes, brussel sprouts
Dairy products like eggs, cheese, and yogurt are also high in protein. Recent developments in lab-grown dairy might make it a more affordable and viable option for consumers too.
B-12 is necessary for the formation of red blood cells and DNA. For vegetarians, eggs, yogurt, and cheese for vegetarians can supply a high amount of B-12, and vegans can obtain it through some fermented foods like nutritional yeast and tempeh. However, to reach the recommended daily amount of 2.4 micrograms, some plant-based eaters might need to supplement their diet with B-12-fortified plant milk, cereal, and yogurt.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Among other purposes, omega-3 fatty acids help regulate blood clotting and inflammation. Some of the best sources of omega-3s are fish oil and fatty fish like salmon, trout, and tuna, so it shouldn’t be hard to obtain as a pescatarian. Algae, algal oil, canola oil, chia seeds, edamame, ground flaxseed, hemp seed, seaweed, soybeans, soy oil, and walnuts are good plant-based sources.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Besides milk and dairy, dark green vegetables like broccoli, collard greens, kale, bok choy, mustard greens, and turnip greens also promote strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D is also found in mushrooms, and is often added to soy milk or other products.
Complications With Plant-Based Diets
No diet comes without its caveats. As plant-based eating rises in popularity, critics have questioned the nutritional benefits of meat and dairy alternatives, the cost of eating plant-based, and the environmental impact of ingredients in many non-dairy and non-meat products.
Environmental Impact of Substitute Foods
Take milk, for example. Each type of non-dairy milk – oat, almond, soy, etc. – has a different contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, land usage, and other environmental impacts. Almond milk has long been the pariah of plant-based milks for the huge amounts of water almond trees use. However, when taking all environmental factors into account, a 2018 study from the University of Oxford found that any plant-based milk is ultimately still less environmentally-harmful than dairy milk. Meat alternatives have also raised concern about soy production, which entails huge amounts of deforestation in the Amazon to grow. But, most soya is still consumed by livestock, and further evidence supports the idea that plant-based burgers are less impactful than meat.
The perception of a whole-food, plant-based diet as inaccessible and expensive is, unfortunately, true in many ways. 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts without as much access to fresh, healthy, whole foods. Meat substitutes and plant-based milks can also be more expensive than their traditional counterparts. But, plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, etc. are much cheaper than meat; legumes are the cheapest source of protein, and a bag of beans is shelf-stable and can last for quite a while. Some studies show that vegetarians actually spend less on groceries, and save about $23 per weekly shopping trip. However, this doesn’t negate the reality that not all regions and communities have equal access to plant-based foods. It might be harder to find certain products, unrealistic to cut out cheap meat-based fast food, and learning how to cook new foods and develop a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet takes time and effort.
A plant-based meat or dairy alternative isn’t automatically healthy. Some of these products may contain hydrogenated oils, dextrose and maltose (forms of processed sugar), and trans fats, and are high in sodium and saturated fats. Thus, while better for the environment, these substitutes often don’t entail the same health benefits as whole foods. Less-processed protein sources like tofu and tempeh are healthier alternatives.
How to Get Started
When embarking on your plant-based journey, start small – especially if your diet has contained a lot of meat or dairy until now. Introduce one plant-based meal each day, or a few a week, working your way up.
Reduce Wherever You Can
Remember that any reduction in animal products is helpful; plant-based eating doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing practice. If everyone in the world went vegetarian, we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5% – but, if everyone cut their consumption by just a quarter and ate plant-based proteins instead, emissions would reduce by 1%. The “flexitarian” diet embraces this mentality; adherents eat mostly vegetarian, but leave room for some exceptions. Try committing to Meatless Monday, or eat plant-based for breakfast and lunch every day, which still allows you to enjoy important or culturally-significant foods at dinner.
Start with a few easy swaps. Try using non-dairy milk in your cereal, making soup with vegetable stock instead of chicken, and enjoying a meatless alternative with dinner. There’s no need to go for the processed meat alternatives if that doesn’t suit you; try well-seasoned tofu, seitan, or mushrooms in tacos, and chickpeas in pasta for cheaper, less-processed nutrients. The switch will be much easier if you’re able to rethink the way you make your meals: meat doesn’t have to be the main event. Try new dressings, sauces, and spices to make the other aspects of a dish exciting.
Plan Out Your Diet
When moving away from meat, a hole will form in your diet where it once was. Without proper nutrition, you’ll likely feel hungrier and more tempted to just fill that hole with snacks and refined carbs. Being mindful of your diet and getting enough nutrients can help prevent this. When starting out, pay attention to the macros of your meals while you’re getting a feel for plant-based eating. Take some time to try out new recipes too, and explore new ways of cooking without animal products.
A shift in eating habits – on both a personal and a global scale – has real, measurable impacts on climate change, ecosystem health, human and animal rights, and personal health. Transitioning to a plant-based diet might seem daunting, but there have never been more options for filling that meat-based hole in your diet. When done deliberately and thoughtfully, a vegan, vegetarian, or whole-food plant-based diet can supply you with 100% of the protein and nutrients you need, without the outsized environmental impact.