For many households in the US, vegetables have long been considered a side dish to main meat dishes such as steak, chicken, or pork. Yet diets in the US are changing rapidly, partly due to growing awareness of the many negative consequences of diets rich in animal products. Plant-based foods are gradually assuming a more prominent place in everyday meals across the nation, as a growing number of people choose to reduce or eliminate the consumption of animal products.
WHAT ARE PLANT-BASED FOODS?
Where once diets were labeled simply as vegetarian or vegan according to the kinds of animal products they excluded, “plant-based” eating is a more flexible idea that refers to reducing one’s consumption of foods derived from animals. Overall, these food choices are becoming more popular in the US. A 2017 Neilsen poll found that 39% of Americans were actively trying to eat more plant-based foods.
In the simplest sense, plant-based foods are those made entirely out of the various parts of plants, including seeds, leaves, roots, and more. Yet, the term “plant-based food” can nevertheless mean various things.
Plant-based eating is often associated with consuming whole foods—foods that have undergone minimal processing, such as chopped fresh mushrooms, nuts ground into nut butter, sliced fruits and vegetables, or boiled lentils. Whole grains, such as brown rice, are also considered whole foods, while processed foods, such as white rice and white bread, are not.
PROCESSED PLANT-BASED FOODS
Processed food products, including soups, chocolate bars, and muffins, can also be crafted with entirely plant ingredients. Many “plant-based” products are specifically designed to imitate processed animal products such as burgers, boxed macaroni, or frozen meals. While plant-based products have long existed in the form of veggie burgers and dairy-free milk alternatives, a new generation of companies focusing on plant-based alternatives is employing novel technologies to create items that are increasingly similar to meat, milk, butter, and eggs.
WHAT ARE PLANT-BASED FOODS MADE FROM?
An incredible diversity of edible plants grows on almost every continent. The globalization of food supply chains has increased the variety of foods available for purchase in US grocery stores and removed seasonal limitations on fresh produce availability. The increasing popularity of plant-based and plant-forward eating has led to a growing plant-based foods market and an incredible variety of animal-free food products.
In addition to the familiar sweetness of apples, bananas, kiwis, cherries, and more, fruits can also be savory. Avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and even eggplants are all classified as fruits because they are the seed-bearing part of flowering plants. Fruits can be excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Vegetables can be starchy like potatoes and carrots, delicate and water-filled like spinach and lettuce, or fibrous like celery and collard greens. Vegetables provide many important nutrients, including folate, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and K.
Whole grains like oats, barley, rye, and wheat pack a nutritional punch, serving as good sources of iron, magnesium, B vitamins, and fiber. Processing removes the fibrous bran and protein-filled germ to create the white flour used in most commercial baked goods, reducing nutrition.
Legumes, also known as pulses, are seeds found within pods. Legumes can be consumed fresh (such as french beans and snap peas) or dried and then cooked (such as lentils, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans). Legumes tend to have a high protein content, making them particularly attractive to people who are reducing their intake of animal products and looking for alternative protein sources.
Legumes have long been nutritional staples of many diets around the world. Mung beans and soybeans have a long history in Asian cuisines, while related products such as tofu and soymilk have become core parts of modern Western vegan and vegetarian diets. Lentils and chickpeas form a primary component of many traditional dishes in India. Peas have recently become a popular ingredient in novel plant-based meat alternatives such as Beyond Meat’s burgers and sausages.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Whether eaten raw or in nut butters, protein bars, pilafs, and dairy replacements, nuts and seeds are good sources of beneficial nutrients and healthy fats. Seed varieties include chia, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, millet, and quinoa, while nut varieties include almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, and more.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A PLANT-BASED DIET?
Plant-based diets generate many benefits for human, animal, and environmental health.
People who switch to a plant-based diet are often motivated by the promise of health benefits. While not always accessible to everyone, a diet consisting of a wide variety of whole foods can reduce inflammation, improve gut function, and boost the immune system. People who reduce their individual meat consumption also benefit public health by reducing the societal burden of diet-related chronic disease associated with frequent consumption of animal products. In addition to genetic factors and diet, external environmental conditions like air and water pollution can also shape overall health. Animal agriculture generates harmful pollution that disproportionately impacts communities nearby factory farms, many of which are predominantly lower-income and BIPOC.[i] Plant-based agriculture, by comparison, tends to have fewer negative impacts on local communities and environments.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. The term includes several different conditions that affect the heart muscle. Coronary heart disease, which can lead to fatal heart attacks, is the most common form. It is becoming increasingly well-recognized that plant-based diets are associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease and death.
Cancer is another significant health risk in the US that may be lessened by adhering to a plant-based diet. A review of nearly one hundred studies found that vegans had a 15% lower risk of developing cancer, while vegetarians’ cancer risk was around 8% lower than the average. Soy, the protein-rich legume that often features heavily in plant-based diets, especially in Asia, has been shown to decrease the risk of breast cancer. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, many whole plant foods contribute to reduced cancer risk, while consumption of red and processed meat increases cancer risk.
Cognitive impairment in older adults can seriously decrease quality of life. A diet low in animal products and high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains may lower the risk of cognitive decline. Plant foods can be rich in polyphenols, antioxidant vitamins, and unsaturated fats and are generally anti-inflammatory, all of which suggest the possibility that a habit of plant-based diets may prevent cognitive decline or even improve cognitive performance.
Globally, hundreds of millions of people suffer from diabetes, which can lead to debilitating strokes, kidney failure, and blindness. This chronic disease can be managed and avoided through diet. Although many people suffering from or at risk of developing diabetes may lack easy access to the healthy, unprocessed foods that are most beneficial for blood sugar management, studies have shown that a whole-food plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by one-third.
Almost all of the meat, dairy, and eggs consumed in the US are produced by industrial animal agriculture that causes immense and unnecessary suffering to animals and to the people who work in meat processing plants. Wherever alternatives are available and accessible, avoiding industrial animal products can be a kinder choice.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) house animals in crowded confinement for the duration of their lives. Conditions in CAFOs do not prioritize animal wellbeing and can lead to significant suffering. For example, the dairy industry is built on separating mother cows from their newborn calves to appropriate their milk for human consumption. Plant-based foods do not require farms to confine or control animals.
Industrial animal agriculture also harms human workers. Workers in CAFOs are routinely exposed to dangerous air pollution that can lead to serious illness. In the industrial slaughterhouses that process CAFO-raised animals, workers are put at risk of serious bodily injuries from fast-moving meat processing lines that optimize corporate profit instead of worker safety. These conditions make meatpacking plant jobs among the most dangerous jobs in the US. Consuming plant-based foods is one way of withdrawing support from human exploitation fostered by industrial animal agriculture.
For those with access to plant-based foods, choosing to forgo animal products in favor of healthy, plant-based foods presents a more compassionate way of eating. However, our food system is not structured to provide universal access to affordable, healthy, plant-based foods. Making kinder choices more widely available will require transforming the dominant industrial food system and erasing its exploitation of animals.
Plant-based foods also carry environmental benefits compared with animal products. The global ecological footprint of the animal agriculture industry is significant, particularly concerning its greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is also a primary driver of deforestation in critical ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and causes significant water, air, and soil pollution wherever animals are raised in confinement.
Animal agriculture is also highly resource-inefficient compared to growing plant foods for direct human consumption. Industrial animal agriculture has a very large land footprint because vast monocrops of corn and soy are needed to feed animals confined within CAFOs. Agriculture accounts for 92% of humanity’s freshwater footprint, one-third of which is associated with animal products. Producing animal-source foods requires more extensive land use and more freshwater than producing the same nutrition from plant foods while also creating higher greenhouse gas emissions and more pollution. Sustainable plant-based foods can nourish people with far fewer environmental impacts than meat and other animal products.
As the plant-based market continues to grow, so too does the movement promoting plant-based eating patterns. Many organizations now exist to advocate for the widespread adoption of plant-based diets, raising awareness about their positive impacts on human health, environmental health, and animal welfare:
- The Plant-Based Foods Association is a trade association dedicated to promoting the plant-based food industry.
- The Good Food Institute is a US-based organization that supports the development of alternative proteins and advocating for reduced production and consumption of industrial animal-based foods.
- The Reducetarian Foundation is a US-based organization devoted to reducing the consumption of animal products.
- Black Vegan Society of Maryland is a US-based organization devoted to educating the public (particularly BIPOC communities) about plant-based eating, and building community around plant-based food and lifestyle.
- Switch4Good is a US-based organization founded by Olympian Dotsie Bausch, which seeks to empower consumers to abandon the consumption of dairy foods, the most difficult part of many plant-based dietary transitions.
- Food Empowerment Project is a US-based organization that promotes plant-based diets to benefit workers, address issues of food accessibility, and improve the lives of animals.
- Factory Farming Awareness Coalition is a US-based organization raising awareness of the methods of industrial animal agriculture.
- Vegeproject is a Japanese organization conducting corporate outreach to increase the availability of plant-based food within the country.
- Farm Forward is a US-based organization devoted to ending factory farming of animals and reducing meat and animal product consumption, together with their affiliated program DefaultVeg.
- Mercy For Animals is a US organization advocating for increased animal welfare standards within CAFOs, as well as transition to plant-based diets.
- ProVeg International is a European Union-based organization spreading awareness of plant-based food throughout the EU.
- Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is a US-based organization researching optimization of plant protein for use in plant-based meats.
- Black VegFest is a yearly plant-based gathering in the New York City area that focuses on the intersectionality of plant-based food and community organizing.
While plant-based food is nothing new, the popularity of predominantly or exclusively plant-based diets appears to be growing in Western countries, as their many benefits are more widely understood. With the robust nutritional health profile of whole plant foods, their low environmental impact, and their independence from an industry that harms people and animals, such dietary changes can help to secure a more just and sustainable future.
[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
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