A study published last fall by British researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America claimed that mortality worldwide could be reduced by 6-10% by the year 2050 if everyone adopted a plant-based diet. Furthermore, they projected that greenhouse gas emissions related to food production could be reduced by a range of 29–70 percent over the next 35 years if a plant-based diet was adopted by humans world-wide. These statistics are based on the researchers’ projections that approximately 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food production related to animal farming. So will a plant-based diet save us (and the Earth)?
While there are many valid discussions about the environmental impact of eliminating animal product food production, the researchers did note that their assumptions are merely projections based on current environmental conditions. It is also important to note that in this research study, fish and seafood consumption were not considered as part of the researchers’ projections on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products were the only food production industries that were included.
Health benefits of a plant-based diet
There is no question that including more plant-based foods in your daily eating plan, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, has many health benefits. Plant-based diets have been linked to a lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension (Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2015). A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is also rich in important nutrients, including fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, many of which cannot be obtained from animal products.
Is a vegan diet better than a vegetarian diet?
In the study conducted by the University of Oxford researchers, it was projected that adopting a vegan diet would have an even greater impact on our health and the environment than simply switching to a vegetarian diet. While vegetarians still consume animal products, such as eggs, cheese, and milk, vegan diets exclude all animal products, and are exclusively plant-based.
Vegan diets are gaining popularity for many reasons. Some people want to strive for a more environmentally sustainable way of eating; others choose to change their way of eating to improve overall health or for their desire to protect animals. Some choose a vegan diet for cultural or religious beliefs. The number of vegans is growing each year in the United States, and is now estimated to be about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Research has shown that vegans typically have a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, lower BMIs, and decreased risk of cancer (Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; July 2009).
New plant-based foods to look for on the market
Thanks to food technology, it is easier than ever to consume a plant-based diet. In addition to dairy substitutes made from soy and nut-based proteins, there are new products hitting the market soon that are made from pea protein. This is great news for people who suffer from life-threatening food allergies to soy and nuts. Look for plant-based milk, creamer, yogurt, and cheese that contains just as much protein as milk-based products.
The bottom line
Following a plant-based diet can have numerous health and environmental benefits. It is important to consume a well-balanced variety of foods that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to ensure that you are meeting your nutritional needs. Talk to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian if you need help with meal planning.
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Carmen is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management and nutrition therapy for chronic disease. In addition to nutrition counseling at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carmen teaches undergraduate health and wellness courses and provides corporate wellness seminars on exercise and nutrition.
Published On: May 06, 2016