How a Plant-Based Diet Benefits Your Health and the Environment
A plant-based diet benefits both your health and the environment. Here's everything you should know, according to a registered dietitian.
Foods that once collected dust—from oat milk to tofu—have officially become the "cool" kids of the grocery store. Not only that, but they're being joined by more and more options every day (hello, Beyond Meat and JUST Egg!).
The rise in popularity of plant-based foods isn't just great for your health—it also has a positive impact on the planet. Here are some plant-based diet benefits that will make you want to add more vegan and vegetarian options to your grocery cart.
How a Plant-Based Diet Benefits Your Health
First thing's first: What is a plant-based diet, anyway? It's exactly what it sounds like: a diet that solely or primarily consists of plant foods. Some plant-based eaters are completely vegan (i.e. no animal products), while others occasionally add in animal-based foods.
According to Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a plant-based registered dietitian and the owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, CT, there are numerous ways a plant-based diet benefits your health. "Eating a vegetarian diet has been found to help lower risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, as well as help with weight loss," she says.
Scientific data, like this peer-reviewed study in Nutrients, shows certain foods can be linked to health problems. The study found vegetarian diets and proper nutrition can help prevent about one-half of the cardio-metabolic deaths in the United States.
This means eating more plant-based foods instead of animal-derived foods could reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Specifically, the study shows diets including red meat tend to have a higher risk of heart disease, partially because of the amount of cholesterol consumed.
But you don't have to be a nutritionist to understand healthy eating. Most of us already know which foods are healthier than others. According to Gorin, fruits and veggies are filled with health-boosting nutrients you may not find in animal-derived products.
"When you think about what a plant-based diet is comprised of—a large amount of fruits and vegetables, as well as plant proteins—you're taking in a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can help your health," she says.
While plant-based eating used to be seen as costly, it's actually incredibly affordable and accessible. Aside from whole foods, alt-meats and cheeses are becoming easier to find as well. And even with all the options already available, the plant-based food boom is only getting started.
"Over the next year, we can expect to see exciting food-tech innovations that will enable significant improvements in taste and texture coming to a variety of plant-based products at retail," Gorin says.
How a Plant-Based Diet Benefits the Environment
Now that you know how a plant-based diet benefits your health, let's move on to how this style of eating can benefit the planet.
In early 2021, the United Nations (UN) formally released a report urging the world to adopt a more plant-based diet to fight climate change. But how does the food on our plate impact the planet?
Research shows there are two major gases that create the greenhouse effect: methane and carbon dioxide. According to the UN's report, our current food system is a big perpetrator of these two gasses. Animal agriculture, the practice of farming animals to maximize meat production, is unsustainable because of the emissions it creates.
The report shows that farming animals is also a leading cause of biodiversity loss and deforestation. And this isn't just in North America: Amazon rainforests have been chopped down to meet the demand for beef.
The UN recommends a plant-based diet for a few reasons. First, the growth of plants is less intensive than farming animals. This means growing food uses less land, wastes less water, and uses fewer resources. Secondly, the more we destroy forests to build factory farms, the more we risk adding to the list of endangered animals, or seeing species going totally extinct. Animals, insects, and birds are all needed to keep ecosystems in balance. But they can't do their job without a safe place to live.
But animal agriculture isn't just a problem for animals. Ecosystems are all about balance, and imbalances can create a domino effect. If ecosystems are disrupted, soil loses nutrients, food supply runs low, and pollination and plant life end. If ecosystems fall apart, our lifestyles will drastically change.
Gorin says plant-based eating is a great alternative for the planet because factory farming requires extra resources that harm ecosystems.
"Eating a plant-based diet can benefit the planet in many ways," she says. "It can help minimize the impact of climate change, as animal products are responsible for about 75% of total greenhouse gas emissions, per a report in The Lancet. It could also help reduce water usage and help alleviate hunger."
Considering many of us didn't grow up eating plant-based diets, switching to one can be an adjustment. Thankfully, there are several delicious plant-based recipes to get you started, like these tempeh recipes.
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