Is Now the Perfect Time to Go Plant-Based?
From empty grocery shelves to more time in the kitchen, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many people eat. And interestingly, it seems to have intensified a trend that already existed towards plant-based eating.
New statistics show that sales of fresh meat alternatives (i.e. plant-based meat substitutes) surged 178.5% the week of May 23. “Part of this may be due to outbreaks of COVID-19 causing some meat processing plants to drastically reduce staff or close altogether,” explains Amanda Izquierdo, MPH, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian. “This has created a short-term reduction in meat supply, and people are turning to alternative meat sources.”
But the shift towards plant-based lifestyle had already begun pre-COVID. “Last year, 25 percent of millennials described themselves as vegan or vegetarian, says Grace Goodwin Dwyer, MS, RD, LDN, CLC, a registered dietitian. “In my practice, I'm seeing people approach the diet for so many different reasons: health, environmental, and even moral/spiritual.”
So what’s so great about plant-based eating? And is now the time to try it? Here’s what nutrition pros have to say.
What is plant-based eating?
There’s no standard definition for a plant-based diet — and that’s actually one of the things nutrition pros love about it. “Plant-based eating focuses on minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian and author of, The Better Period Food Solution. In other words, a plant-based diet will be rich in all these foods.
Though plant-based eating sometimes gets confused with veganism (which means avoiding all animal products), it’s actually a much more broad term. “I love the concept of plant-based eating because it emphasizes what it includes rather than what it excludes,” says Grace Goodwin Dwyer, MS, RD, LDN, CLC, a registered dietitian. And that inclusiveness may actually have its own benefits: “Anytime we approach a lifestyle from a mental place of abundance rather than deprivation, it's helpful for sticking to that pattern long-term,” Dwyer says.
“The great thing about plant-based eating is that there isn’t a certain amount of plants you ‘have’ to eat to be considered a plant-based eating pattern,” Izquierdo adds. “I define it as: plants mostly, then everything else.”
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
There’s a lot to like about including more plants in your diet, experts say.
By emphasizing minimally-processed plant foods, many people who follow a plant-based diet end up crowding out the more highly-processed items associated with prevalent health conditions. Health benefits of plant-based eating include lower risk of diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, and obesity, Dwyer says.
It’s good for the environment.
Given that there’s no planet B, many people are choosing to go plant-based for environmental reasons. “Plant-food production requires fewer natural resources than animal-food production,” Dwyer explains. Even if you’re not 100 percent plant-based, cutting down on animal products can make an impact.
Similarly, you don't have to be 100 percent plant-based to receive the diet's health benefits, Dwyer says. “Increasing the amount of whole plant foods you include in your diet to any degree is helpful — even if you still eat meat, eggs, or dairy on occasion.”
There’s also a much wider variety of plant foods out there than many realize. “Many believe that a plant-based diet is limited to grass and greens, but that’s not true,” Beckerman points out. “Many meat-based recipes are adaptable with buzzy meat-alternatives such as mushrooms, jackfruit, legumes, and pulses. Fiber and nutrient-dense foods are also quite versatile and can be incorporated into traditional meat-based meals such as lasagna, burgers, and stews.”
Walking around the produce section at Whole Foods might make it seem like plant-based eating is a luxury lifestyle, but it can actually be more budget-friendly than eating animal-based foods, according to Izquierdo. “For example, chicken breast costs around $3/pound, while the combination of rice and beans costs about $0.25/pound,” she says. “And frozen fruits and vegetables are great options because they tend to be cheaper than fresh produce.”
What are the drawbacks?
Of course, there’s no perfect diet. There are a couple of potential downsides to plant-based eating to be aware of.
Some people struggle with digestive issues.
Hello, excessive bloating. “The plant-based diet is really heavy in fiber,” Dwyer says. “While getting plenty of fiber is really beneficial for gut health and cardiovascular health, it can lead to some excess gas and bloating as our gut microbes process the fiber (and create gas as a byproduct).”
To help deal with this, Dwyer suggests drinking plenty of water to keep fiber moving through your GI tract. “I'd recommend at least 2 liters/day for women, but you might need more depending on your activity level and muscle mass.” Starting slowly with smaller servings of higher fiber foods can also help your gut acclimate.
Nutrient deficiencies are possible.
“People who eat entirely plant-based (or vegan) are at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency because B12 is only naturally found in animal foods,” Dwyer says. “B12 is an incredibly important nutrient, with deficiencies leading to anemia, neurological changes, and infertility. I recommend plant-based folks eat foods fortified in B12 such as non-dairy milks, cereals, and nutritional yeast, as well as taking a supplemental form.” Other nutrients to keep an eye on when you’re eating a completely plant-based diet, she says, include iodine, essential fatty acids, and vitamin D.
Some plant-based foods aren’t as good for you as you might think.
Plant-based meats and vegan snacks are easier to find than ever. But it’s important to understand that these foods are not necessarily healthy just because they’re plant-based, Beckerman says. “Certain snack foods like plant-based muffins, deli slices, and desserts are loaded with preservatives, added sugars, and saturated fat.” By focusing on mostly whole plant foods, you can ensure you get the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
Tips for getting started with a plant-based diet:
If you want to give plant-based eating a try, here’s how to set yourself up for a smooth transition and long-term success.
“Lifestyle changes that we make gradually tend to be the ones that ‘stick,’” Dwyer says. “Try making one or two plant-based dinners per week and take it from there.”
This strategy also works well for incorporating unfamiliar plant foods. “Start with one or two new plant foods each week and experiment with how to enjoy them,” Izquierdo suggests. “The possibilities are endless!”
Include protein at every meal.
Many people worry about getting enough protein on a plant-based diet. “While plant-derived foods are generally lower in protein than animal-derived foods, it's still very doable to get all of the protein you need from a plant-based diet. Nuts, seeds, legumes (including soy), grains and pseudograins (like quinoa) all offer protein," Dwyer says.
"What's key for getting adequate protein in a plant-based diet is being intentional and making sure you're including at least one protein-rich plant food at every meal and snack throughout the day,” she adds. Plant-based protein powders can also be helpful, she adds, but it’s best to get most of your nutrients (including protein) from whole foods.
One way to make the transition easier is to try incorporating more plants into the foods you already enjoy, Izquierdo says. “The next time you have pasta, make half of it zucchini noodles, or when making burger patties, swap out half of the ground beef for mushrooms. The umami flavor of mushrooms offers a similar taste to beef.”
When it comes to food choices made in a time crunch, we often revert back to old habits. “Make it easier on yourself by meal-prepping or batch cooking some of your staple foods,” Dwyer suggests. “For example, you can prep a big batch of grains at the beginning of the week, and use it in meals throughout the following days.”