Written by: Travertine Garcia MPH, Common Threads Dietetic Intern
Plant-based or plant-forward meals focus on using ingredients that come from plants and limiting or excluding animal products. Plant-based foods include not only fruits and vegetables, but beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. There are many reasons why people choose plant-based meals: health benefits, sustainability, animal welfare, cost, and of course, taste. Of course plant-based eating is not always a choice; in the United States, animal foods like meat, milk, and eggs are relatively abundant and affordable, however, in many parts of the world people do not have consistent access to these foods. For today’s conversation, let’s explore a few benefits of plant-based eating.
Health benefits of plant-forward eating
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts are the foundation of plant-based cooking. These foods are high in fiber and healthy fats, low in saturated fats, and packed with antioxidants. It’s no surprise that plant-based eating patterns are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and colon cancer.
Fiber supports healthy digestion and helps regulate cholesterol. Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats; which are found in nuts, seeds, oils, avocado, and fish; help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, support brain function, and promote tissue health. Plant foods provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which have many essential roles throughout the body, including antioxidant properties that help fight inflammation.
As with any eating pattern, it is important to eat a variety of different foods to ensure that you are getting complete nutrition. This is especially true for plant-based proteins.
Good sources of plant-based protein include beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Quinoa and soy are especially good sources of protein because they are “complete proteins”, try this Herbed Quinoa Salad for a protein-packed, plant-based meal.
The combination of rice and beans is also considered a complete protein, like in this recipe for Cuban Rice & Beans. Those who follow a completely vegetarian or vegan diet may want to consult a doctor or dietitian to make sure they are getting enough of certain nutrients.
Environmental impacts of animal foods
Producing enough meat, dairy, seafood, and eggs to satisfy our current level of consumption uses a lot of land, water, and energy. Assessing the exact environmental impacts of different foods is very complex, but according to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), livestock production alone accounts for about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Put in perspective, that’s more than the entire global transportation sector (14.3 percent of emissions) and over twice as much as all other agricultural activities combined (6.7 percent of emissions). If current trends in production and consumption continue, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are expected to double by 2050, according to Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Red meats like beef, goat, and sheep have the largest greenhouse gas footprint per serving. The climate impacts of pork, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs are lower than red meat, but still much higher than plant foods. Research shows that shifting toward plant-based eating patterns can have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and is an important step toward slowing climate change. As a result, many chefs are embracing plant-based menus as a way to support public health and environmental sustainability.
How to get started
Interested in exploring plant-based meals? The shift toward a plant-based eating pattern doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Try these small steps to get started.
- Try Meatless Monday – It’s exactly what it sounds like – start by eating plant-based meals one day a week. Meatless Monday is an evidence-based global campaign that has been adopted by schools, hospitals, restaurants and home cooks all over the world to shift toward healthier menus and reduce environmental impacts. Research shows that people are more likely to adopt new habits at the beginning of the week and having a weekly reminder makes it easier to stay on track. Try these Southwestern Lentils for a filling, flavorful, and nutritious meal.
- Use animal products as a garnish or “topping” – Rethink how you use meat. Instead of basing you meals around meat, use just a small amount of meat, dairy, or seafood for flavor but keep plant-based ingredients as the main attraction. Try this Falafel topped with a drizzle of plain yogurt.
- Get creative in the kitchen – Think of plant-based cooking as an opportunity to expand your culinary horizons and experiment with new ingredients like different varieties of beans, whole grains, or vegetables. Be sure to include plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, tofu, and tempeh. Try our adaptation of Kushari, an Egyptian dish made with lentils and rice.
What are some of your favorite plant-based foods and dishes? Share your comments below!
More Plant-based Recipes to Try
- “Major health gains and carbon savings possible with a shift to plant-based diets” (Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future)
- “Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
- “Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises” (Global Environmental Change)
- “What is a plant based diet and why should you try it” (Harvard Health Blog)
- “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets” (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)
- “Principles of Healthy Sustainable Menus” (Menus of Change)
ABOUT COMMON THREADS
Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn, and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them.