Sooooo…. plant based diets. Anyone here follow one? Or thinking about following one? A plant-based diet can be defined as one that focuses on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes, while minimizing or excluding animal food products such as meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products (1). Vegetarianism and veganism, of course, are not new concepts, but it seems like the movement for consuming less meat has been growing in recent years. To my shame as a dietitian, I honestly never really looked much into the arguments and research for eating a plant-based diet until fairly recently, even though one of the most common personal questions I receive from people when they find out what I do is “so, are you a vegetarian?”
Nutrition is already a complicated science, but it gets even more confuddled when you factor in all the personal opinions, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and life philosophies that influence eating patterns and choices. I think I kind of avoided the vegetarian thing because I knew once I started researching, it would just be an endless black hole of information and voices that would take forever to sift through. Plus, not only are meats and animal-based foods tasty, they are also central in the traditional cuisine of so many cultures- who is anyone to say that they’ve been doing it wrong all this time? But fairly recently, I found it in myself to actually do the research. I still have more to learn, but I want to briefly outline here the arguments I’ve found so far FOR a more plant-leaning diet. As I’ve mentioned in my posts about sugar, I truly believe that food is a means of enjoying life and therefore I have no interest in a [fill in the blank]-free diet. Meat and animal-based foods have a sacred place in human history and cultural traditions, and I really believe that these foods are there for us to enjoy. Also, it is possible to eat vegetarian/vegan and NOT do it in a healthy way. See this article. Meat and animal-based foods cannot be neatly categorized in the black and white camps of “healthy food” vs. “unhealthy food.” What I am learning from my research, though, is that 1. we in modern day Western cultures do eat far more animal-based foods than we truly need, and 2. it is possible to get all the protein and other nutrients we need without making meats or animal-based foods the central part of our daily meals. I don’t cook much with meat anyways, mostly because I don’t like buying and cooking it, but I have decided to consciously try to eat less animal products (sometimes a struggle because of my Greek yogurt addiction), by for example surveying my non-meat options for protein before automatically choosing the chicken at the salad bar, and alternating my Greek yogurt breakfast with other choices. Following a plant-based/plant-leaning diet is a personal choice that can be made for any number of reasons. I won’t go over all of them, but some of the more common reasons for going plant-based are: health, environmental, and ethical.
From a health standpoint— I’ll focus here on 3 nutrients of concern when it comes to meat: saturated fat, protein, and micronutrients.
Saturated fat: Ask any cardiac patient what their doctor or dietitian has recommended for their diet, and they will most likely tell you they’re supposed to eat more chicken and fish and less red meat. That’s because the fat in red meat, those lovely white marble-y streaks that make your pot roast extra juicy and tender, is mainly saturated fat. High intake of saturated fat and cholesterol has been strongly correlated with the accumulation of plaque in arteries (this process is called atherosclerosis), which, when allowed to continue to the point where the artery becomes blocked, leads to heart disease and potential cardiac events, such as heart attacks. If you’re interested in learning more about the research behind our current heart healthy diet recommendations, I’d recommend starting by looking into the Framingham Heart Study. (The hyperlink takes you to Wikipedia, so you’ll get the basic overview, but if you really want to analyze the science, find some real journal articles or other scholarly publications on this!)
Protein: When we think of high-protein foods, most people automatically think of meat. It’s true, humans need protein, and the protein in meats and animal based foods are what are considered “high biological value,” meaning that these proteins are more efficiently used by the human body than the protein from plants. Protein is a macronutrient that has come to be highly revered in society, partially due to the detrimental effects of protein malnutrition, and partially due to the belief that eating more protein will help build muscle. However, I would argue that there is a range of protein that we need to avoid malnutrition and maintain muscle mass, and that taking in more protein above that range is not necessary. A good rule of thumb for estimating your protein needs if you’re a healthy person with no acute medical issues and have a mildly active lifestyle is 0.8grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Take a second and calculate that out for yourself (take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 to get weight in kilograms, if you’re from the U.S.). I bet your protein needs are lower than you thought! Not only is excessive protein not necessary, it is also potentially harmful to our health. For one thing, it plays into the general issue of over-eating and excess caloric intake. Excess calories lead to weight gain, which can in turn lead to a host of other metabolic issues. For another, excess intake of animal-based foods actually has been shown in studies to be linked to cancer, auto-immune diseases, and other chronic illnesses including heart and kidney disease. For more information, I would recommend reading “The China Study” by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell and checking out this WHO FAQs page on the link between red meat intake and cancer. Given the fact that we really don’t need as much protein as we are often led to believe, it is possible to get the amount we do need from plant-based foods; high-protein plants include soy, legumes, nuts, quinoa, and peas.
Micronutrient concerns: Some may argue that going plant-based is harmful because of the nutrients you miss out on when you skip meat. And they’re right to be concerned! There are some micronutrients that are found in larger amounts in animal-based foods. These include vitamin B12 (found naturally only in animals), calcium, iron, and zinc. However, if you’re not a strict vegan/vegetarian, it is likely that you are getting the micronutrients that you need from the limited animal products you do consume, as well as from plant foods, but if you’re concerned about deficiencies, see your doctor and/or a dietitian to find out ways to find out for sure and supplement as needed!
From an environmental standpoint-– According to the USDA, Americans consumed an average of 71.2 pounds of red meat and 54.1 pounds of poultry in 2012 (2,3). That’s a lotta meat. Consider the environmental cost of producing that much. Did you know that 1 quarter pound hamburger could require 150 gallons of water to produce!? (4). And many sources state that water requirement could even be much higher. Raising animals for food is responsible for a large portion of global water consumption, mainly because of the water-intensive grains that must be grown to feed animals for meat production. In addition, raising livestock produces more greenhouse gases than driving a car, as cows produce methane as a by-product of digestion (that’s a polite way of saying: cow farts). There’s also the issue of the land needed to raise enough livestock to feed our growing population and its ever-growing hunger for meat. With our rate of 70lb of red meat/person/year, how can we expect the earth to sustain this habit?? One step towards a solution is for consumers to choose their meat from farms with a commitment to sustainability. Another step towards sustainability is to just eat less meat! My own recommendation, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 is to limit meat consumption to no more than 3-5 ounces per day (3oz meat is about the size of a deck of cards).
And then there’s the ethical standpoint. It’s a bit dated, but I would highly recommend the documentary “Food, Inc” to anyone interested in learning about animal agriculture/farming practices and animal welfare in the US. New industrial practices have always come with ethical consequences in the food industry (The Jungle, anyone?). Fueled by the inclination to satisfy demand and maximize financial success, many food companies have adopted practices to ensure efficiency and mass production of food at minimal cost (5), though really the cost may be both human and animal health. Things have changed some since the documentary came out in 2008, but the fact remains that most sources still report that more than 95% of animals raised for food are raised in factory farms, which can mean overcrowding, indoor confinement with poor air quality, poor sanitation leading to sickness and misuse of antibiotics, and many other unethical conditions for the animals (6). Again, a step in the right direction for the consumer would be to choose meats from farms that are committed to animal welfare. For us average consumers who can’t necessarily commit to a local meat share or buy meat at the local farmer’s market regularly, learning to decipher labels at the supermarket is important. Whole Foods has actually collaborated with Global Animal Partnership to create a pretty nifty 5-step Animal Welfare Rating system- learn more here!
Phew. So this is just a summary of SOME of the issues surrounding meat consumption and the arguments for eating less animal-based foods. My conclusion has been the same as with any other diet or eating ideology– it’s all about BALANCE!I think Michael Pollan says it quite well in his article here. While I certainly don’t feel the need to eat a 9-ounce steak every day, I don’t feel bad about enjoying a smaller portion of meat, perhaps once every few days when it’s available and comes from an animal that was sustainably and ethically raised.
So, if we’re not eating meat every day, how will we get the protein and nutrients we do need? Well… may I venture to suggest soy-protein-rich tofu?
Tofu is one of those foods that is fairly consistently met with a visceral gag when I suggest it (to any of my non-Asian friends) as an example of a plant-based protein-rich food. It’s probably a texture thing. I don’t really know, I grew up eating tofu and can’t get enough of the stuff. Pan-fried and dipped in soy sauce, silken and crumbed into soon dubu jjigae, marinaded and simmered with vegetables as mapo tofu… the possibilities are endless! Here I have an example of a tofu recipe that you will hopefully enjoy if you’ve liked my other curries!
tofu vegetable coconut curry
2-3 small sweet potatoes, chopped into 3/4 inch cubes
1/2 block (7.5oz) firm or extra firm tofu, drained and patted dry with paper towel
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, sliced
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 cups broccoli/cauliflower florets
1/2 Tbsp fresh grated ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 of a 13.5oz can of low fat coconut milk
2 tsp red curry paste
Juice of 1/2 lime
2 tsp fish sauce
3 cups Tuscan kale, chopped/torn
Leaves from 4-5 fresh cilantro sprigs, chopped
S&P to taste
4-5 Tbsp olive, vegetable, or coconut oil
1/2 tsp crunchy peanut butter, optional
1/2 tsp flour (for thickening curry)
Brown Jasmine rice, for serving
Roast sweet potatoes: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and line a baking sheet with foil. Toss cubed sweet potatoes with 1 Tbsp oil and a dash of salt. Place sweet potatoes in a single layer on foil-lined sheet and roast in preheated oven for about 15 minutes. Don’t worry if they’re still undercooked; they will continue to cook later in curry. Set aside.
Fry tofu: Cut the block of tofu into small rectangles, about 1″ by 1.5″ (or smaller, if you wish). Heat 1-2 Tbsp oil in a pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the tofu slices and allow to fry for about 5 minutes until golden brown on one side. Add 1 clove minced garlic, and flip the tofu to fry on the other side another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
1. Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a shallow sauce pan (any sort of large pot/pan with sides at least 2″ high will do) over medium heat. Once pan/pot is hot, add onions, peppers, and broccoli/cauliflower and cook until onions and peppers are softened. Add the remaining minced garlic, grated ginger, and a dash or two of salt. Saute until broccoli and cauliflower are softened, about 4-5 minutes.
2. Add coconut milk, vegetable broth, a curry paste. Mix so that the liquids and paste combine. Let the mixture come to a boil, then add fish sauce, lime juice, and chopped cilantro. Add kale, cover pot/pan with lid and reduce heat to a simmer. When kale is wilted, stir the mixture, then gently mix in the sweet potatoes and tofu. Cover with lid again and let simmer for about 30 minutes.
3. Remove lid and gently mix in 1/2 tsp peanut butter (if using) and 1/2 tsp flour. Let simmer uncovered for another 15-20 minutes.
Serve: Serve curry over rice. Garnish with lime wedges and fresh cilantro.