With all the different diet trends circulating the media, it’s hard to know what’s worth paying attention to and what’s just a fad. The vegan lifestyle is the latest trend to make it to the forefront. Instead of just celebrities touting their vegan diets to the public, more and more grocery stores and restaurants are accommodating those with different dietary requirements.
Usually, major businesses don’t cater to trends unless a significant number of consumers are participating. But is this just a trend?
First, it’s important to bust through all the different labels placed on food these days. What do gluten-free, dairy-free, and non-GMO mean, anyway? What’s the difference between a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diet? Don’t all these things mean the same thing?
A vegan is a person who indulges in absolutely no foods that come from animals, including honey, while a vegetarian may allow themselves eggs and dairy. Someone with a plant-based diet will occasionally eat meat, eggs, and dairy, but the majority of their nutrition is derived from plants, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. For example, someone who eats plant-based nutrition might make a breakfast smoothie out of bananas, frozen berries, oat milk, turmeric, and a teaspoon of coconut oil. One glass of this smoothie is filled with fiber, vitamins, minerals, proteins, antioxidants, and healthy fats to get the day started. However, a person who eats plant-based nutrition doesn’t cut meat and dairy out completely, like a vegetarian or vegan, so they might eat chicken for lunch or have salmon for dinner.
Compared to veganism and vegetarianism, is plant-based nutrition actually any better for you? In the Middle East and Southeast Asia, most people eat a diet consisting mainly of rice, veggies, and legumes. Poultry, dairy, and fish are consumed to a lesser extent, with red meat and sweets making up the smallest percentage of the diet. According to Harvard Health Publishing (health.harvard.edu), this type of diet reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and depression. Additionally, plant-based eating is shown to reduce frailty in older adults as well as support cognitive function.
Not only is a plant-based diet beneficial to human health, cutting back on meat and dairy benefits the earth’s climate. After deforestation and fossil fuels, animal agriculture accounts for 13 to 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that humans worldwide are responsible for, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (fao.org). The biggest culprits releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere are beef and lamb production operations. Compared to other meats and poultry, beef and lamb require more land (contributing to deforestation), water, and fertilizer to produce. Cow manure also produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective,there are more than 100 million cattle in the United States alone—and they’re all producing methane.
In the last decade, greater emphasis has been placed on health and environmental consciousness. More options have materialized for people who want to swap out dairy and meat for greener alternatives. But are plant-based/vegan substitutions for meat and dairy actually healthier for you? Do they taste as good?
As far as taste, the answer varies by person. As far as health, it depends on the ingredients. For some individuals, vegan substitutes are about as appetizing as dog food while others find them just as good, if not better, than their meaty counterparts. Whether or not they’re healthier for you is debatable. Fresh, whole foods—such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and legumes—will always be the healthier option. Overly processed vegan food, just like overly processed regular food, holds little to no nutritional value and the taste is just as compromising.
When shopping, it’s important to take a look at the ingredient list. What is the salt and sugar content? Does it contain actual food ingredients you recognize, with little to no preservatives? Or is there just a long list of additives you can’t pronounce? Vegan or not, foods made with things you don’t recognize are generally unhealthy.
Making the switch to a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be sweeping or grand. A few plant-based meals a week—or even just one—is enough to get started and to make a difference. Healthier choices one day out of the week might eventually snowball into healthy choices throughout the entire month and, eventually, the year.
Going full on vegan or vegetarian isn’t desirable or realistic for everyone. Therefore, a plant-based diet is perfect for those who want to be more conscious of what they feed their bodies. Even while meat, poultry, and fish stay in the diet, going plant-based encourages individuals to make a more concerted effort at putting fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains on their plates. This is the point of a plant- based diet – to make better choices rather than create restrictions. Additionally, a plant-based diet is meant to be accessible in terms of cost and resources and easier to shape into a lifestyle.
If you think a plant-based diet might be beneficial to you or your family, talk to a healthcare professional and do your own research. Additionally, the internet has a plethora of recipes, including those that are easy and cheap, to experiment with and find out what works best for you and your household. There is also plenty of literature both on the web and at the library or bookstore on the subject of plant-based eating. Health is a personal journey, meaning there is no one diet that fixes all, but knowing where to start makes the greatest difference.